Tag Archives: Nathan Morris

Biff! POW!! Welcome to Geek Theatre

Review: She Kills Monsters at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The curtain is finally going up in Charlotte on the works of playwright Qui Nyugen, the American son of Vietnamese parents who founded the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company back in 2000. Soon afterwards, Nyugen’s brainchild transplanted from Ohio to Off-Broadway – where it became the first theatre company sponsored by NY Comic Con and the wellspring of “Geek Theatre.” Emphasizing sci-fi, stage combat, and gaming – with a biff! POW! comic book edge – Nyugen’s 2011 comedy-drama She Kills Monsters is typical of the breed.

Of course, the monsters are no more real onstage at The Arts Factory than they are in Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role playing. Try outlandish costumes, fantasy projections, and puppets.

So this co-production from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and Women-In-Plays, directed by Sheri Marvin, is plenty of fun, much louder than it is fearsome. Yet there is a serious side to Agnes Evans’ quest for the Lost Soul of Athens in the fantasy realm of New Landia. Wresting the stolen Lost Soul from the fearsome five-headed Tiamat isn’t truly the crux of Agnes’s quest. Nor was it stolen, precisely, for we’re back in 1995, when demon overlord Orcus actually traded the soul for a neat TV/VCR combo.1

Agnes, a humdrum high-school English teacher, is on a quest to connect after losing her parents and her younger sister, Tillie, in a car accident. While preparing to liquidate her childhood home and move in with longtime boyfriend Miles, Agnes stumbles upon an unfinished Dungeons & Dragons module that Tillie has left behind – a first baby step toward realizing just how little she knew about her little sister while she was alive. Taking the module to Chuck, the notorious Dragon Master of Athens (Ohio), big sister learns that Tillie remains a D&D legend, revered as Tillius the Paladin in the gaming world.

More humbling secrets lie ahead as Agnes enters the fantasy world of her sister’s legacy: Tillie was gay, and she was bullied at school – the school where Agnes teaches. Of course, live theatre heightens the impact of these revelations, thanks to some subtle nudging from Nyugen and a logical plot twist. Tillie is in the game as one of the companions who helps Agnes on her quest, and she’s a central character in the storyline. Nyugen enables Agnes to effortlessly converse with Tillius, who comes back to life during their adventures, giving the action hero a chance to vent the resentments she still feels toward her neglectful sister.6

Friends of Tillie’s are in the storyline as well, along with Miles, who is cast as one the obstacles who must be slain if Agnes and her companions are to have their rendezvous with the five-headed Tiamat. So are the bullies, succubi named Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, aliases that are not at all obscure. Of course, as Agnes shuttles between the role-playing D&D world and real life, she encounters all of Tillie’s companions – and enemies – at school.

And since the same actors portray the characters Tillie invented and the people they are modeled after, the difference between the fantasy world and the real world is largely erased, far more for us than Agnes, who is presumably encountering the tabletop D&D dramatis personae as plastic action figures.

If you can manage to take so much silliness seriously, you might descry a distinct vein of feminism in Marvin’s directing, for the men, when not merely annoying, consistently deliver their villainous vaunts at high volume. Kudos, then, to Nyugen as well for upending this traditionally masculine world of geekery. Needless to say, the real heavy lifting is done by our mostly female clan of heroic gladiators under the guidance of fight choreographer Katie Bearden and fight captain Nathan Morris, who moonlights as Dragon Master Chuck.5

Lighting by Sean Kimbro decisively marks the borders between Agnes’ worlds. But the costumes by Ramsey Lyric enhance the fun and immerse us in Nyugen’s quirky fantasy. The tight leather action suit sported by Charlie Grass as Tillius, along with her dungeon war paint, instantly grabs our attention, the Viking war gear of her party dimly gleams its savagery, and the monkish cowl enveloping Morris as Chuck marks him as a mystic master of the dark D&D arts. Juxtaposed with these costumes, with Lyric’s fabrications representing New Landia outlandish ogres, and with his climactic Tiamat, Luna Mackie as Agnes looks rather humdrum in her functional everyday attire.

While Mackie is toughening as Agnes, Grass is softening as the resentful warrior sister, a gradual and graceful rapprochement overall with numerous bumps along the way, as Tillie drops one revelation after another. Mackie doesn’t immediately strike us as having much adventure queen potential, but her speedy transformation is nicely gauged – if you consider the difference between the learning curve of a board game and an apprenticeship for a black belt.

Rushed or not, Mackie’s metamorphosis is stunning: she absolutely rocks the role of Agnes the Asshatted. Yet there might be some in the audience who see Grass as playing the title role. They are that good, for we can see the softness and vulnerability behind the black leather and the black war paint as soon as they stride onto the scene. Their ferocity is a volatile mix of bellicose energy and pent-up resentment. There’s enough sincere force coming from Grass for Mackie to be genuinely shaken, so Agnes’s perseverance became authentic and ultimately admirable on opening night. For just a moment, the rapprochement of the sisters was rather moving for me.

Now we can get somber and sententious about the bullying and gender crises we witness here, but it’s back in 2011 when Nyugen writes his Vampire Cowboy romp and 1995 when he sets the action. So for Marvin and her cast, this is signal enough for outsized posturing from heroes and villains alike, epic declamations of WrestleMania proportions, mixed with the stereotypes and pettiness of a high school sitcom.9

While Mackie and Grass are admirably divided within, Caleb Hinkley as Miles gets to play two separate versions of the same person, big sister’s boyfriend that Tillie despises and the D&D distortion of him that Tillius can destroy. Kaeleigh Miller as Kelly and Kaliope, Joe Watson as Ronnie and Orcus, and Charlie Napier as Steve are also recognizably twin versions, real and imaginary, of the same people. For the evil succubi, Nevaeh Woolens as Tina and Michelle Strom as Gabbi, the gulf between reality and fantasy pointedly diminishes, for both are cheerleaders in Athens and New Landia – with bloodier tops and mouths as succubi.

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Amari Rice may have the most lighthearted pair of roles as Vera, an incompetent guidance counselor in real life, and The Beholder, an appropriately short-lived enemy in New Landia. Easily the most poignant and affecting dual roles belong to Elizabeth Marvin. When we first meet her in New Landia, Marvin as Lilith is a horned demon queen who is Tillius’s closest companion, wielding a wicked battle axe, but in real life she is Lily, no boldness to her whatsoever, shyly denying any past relationship with Tillie, and likely in the closet.

Mostly bellowing, officiating, and narrating under his mystical hood as our Dungeon Master, Morris as Chuck subtly changes in the real high school world as he introduces Agnes to her late sister’s friends and tormentors. But learning the true-life identity of Tillius the Paladin, Chuck clearly sparks Agnes’s curiosity – and her epic D&D adventure – with his open, larger-than-life admiration. Under the radar, he is also learning about Tillie and Agnes as he presides over the elder sister’s D&D initiation.

In that respect, Chuck’s journey is the most like our own. Forget about Greek tragedy, and enjoy Geek theatre.

Hit the Road, James, With a Mind-Boggling “Hitchhiker’s Guide”

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Review:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Can this really be the end? Citizens of the Universe and its indefatigable intergalactic peacekeeper, James Cartee, are leaving Charlotte, heading for Texas, and only possibly leaving an appendage behind them to carry on their mission. Closing with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Unknown Brewing Company, their most lavish production since they adapted The Princess Bride at the now-defunct Breakfast Club in 2011, COTU is going out with a big bang.

Two parallel events trigger the sci-fi comedy as we meet the shambling, stiff-necked Arthur Dent, who never sheds his PJs and bathrobe throughout his mind-boggling travels. On the earthly plane, Arthur is battling to keep his Cottington home from demolition by the county to provide a pulverized right-of-way for a new thruway. He’s ready to lay down his life for his property, and he’s actually lying down in front of his Cottington cottage so that the county bulldozer can’t move further.

Meanwhile, on a more galactic plane, Vogon overlords who are constructing a hyperspace bypass have slated Earth for demolition. Why a perpetually moving planet in a perpetually expanding universe would be slated for demolition is beside the point, do you hear me?

By the most improbable coincidence, Arthur is singled out for rescue by Ford Prefect, an embedded alien who contributes to the Hitchhiker’s Guide as a roving travel writer. Yes, when Douglas Adams first conceived his sci-fi serial for BBC

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Radio in 1978, ebooks were already on his imaginary assembly line. Arthur frequently consults his pocket reader after hitchhiking aboard a new space cruise or during his downtime, but it is Mandy Kendall who brings The Book to life between stints as our narrator.

She’s also, as our costume designer, the person who makes COTU’s valedictory so outré sensational. Arthur may be a humdrum everyman, with Chris Freeman faithfully executing his shambling duties, but Tom Ollis and Billy Whalen, tethered together as two-headed galaxy prez Zaphod Beeblebrox, take us back past the disco ‘70s to the hippy ‘60s with their outfit. Loud colors, a florid headband, with brash tie-dyes clashing unapologetically against paisleys.

Of course, Beeblebrox doesn’t exhaust the weird phenomena Kendall must costume on Arthur’s odyssey. Other cameos range from Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal (Greg Irwin), Marvin the morose robot (David G. Holland), Deep Thought the computer (Martin Barry), a Whale (Kevin Sario) swimming with a Bowl of Petunias, and the two life forms on our planet that are smarter than we are, mice and dolphins.

Freeman maintains a British diffidence that occasionally flares into puzzlement amid his haywire journeying, but Nathan Morris as Ford is the optimistic huckster forever urging Arthur onwards, almost oozing insincerity when the going gets tough. Like the brainy Trillian and the gregarious Book, Ford is occasionally incomprehensible when he uses jargon that is outside the ken of the BBC and the OED.

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Both Ford and Kendall occasionally stumbled on their lines Saturday night when they wandered through this alien corn, less like the terminology of a botany catalogue than the brainchildren of Lewis Carroll. By comparison, Elisha Bryant skates through these lingual brambles effortlessly as the other earthling in our story, not merely assimilating into the galactic hierarchy after being kidnapped by Beeblebrox, but becoming his/its/their right-hand organism.

If you saw Bryant’s work recently in two of the plays at Children’s Theatre’s WonderFest, including the title role in The Commedia Snow White, her excellence at the Unknown Brewing Company will come as no surprise. Every time Bryant appears, it’s in a different costume. Trillian is adequate reason for Arthur to keep on traipsing across the galaxy.

Aside from their helter-skelter production style or their intriguing choices of classics and film adaptations, COTU is best known for pioneering new venues, going where no other theatre company has presented before. Surrounding the players with a wall of wooden casks and an armada of tall stainless steel brewing tanks, the Unknown was surprisingly apt for a sci-fi comedy.

Yes, the sound seal between the brewing room and the bustling taproom wasn’t perfect as the evening ripened, and the makeshift seating wasn’t cushy enough to prevent the onset of butt burnout at the end of the show. But you can settle into the general seating with your brewski in hand, and there was a convenient food truck parked outside last Saturday night on the corner of S. Mint and Lincoln Streets. I can vouch for the blackened salmon sandwich that I took into the theater, but once the lights went down, I couldn’t accurately describe all its green and crunchy contents.

Getting the answer to the meaning of life from Deep Thought is a profound reason for going, so I won’t be a spoiler. But the anthem near the close of Act 2 is such an emblematic goodbye that I can’t resist. After sitting behind the control board for most of the night, cuing projections that I suspect he devised and overseeing the excellent sound, Cartee strode forward to the stage and joined the action – as a dolphin. Somehow in time-honored comic book style, Adams had brought us back to Earth just before the wily dolphins threw off their domesticated disguises and fled the planet.

“So long,” they sang in a joyous, rudimentary production number, “and thanks for all the fish!” Goodbye to you, too, COTU. Thanks for sticking with it so long through so many challenges and hardships.