Geeks, gamers and fans of crazily imaginative theater: Rejoice!
Area Stage in Coral Gables is following its successful summer production of the Broadway classic “Cabaret” with a wild and witty Off-Off-Broadway play that speaks to the adventuresome inner nerd in us all.
Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters” had its New York premiere at the Flea Theater in 2011. Nguyen, whose breakout play “Vietgone” won the prestigious ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award in 2016, is a writer with a vibrantly distinctive voice. Co-founder and artistic director of the New York-based Vampire Cowboys theater company, Nguyen creates pieces full of comedy, adventure, combat, pop culture references and an adroit way of tugging at the heartstrings.
Staged by Area’s associate artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz, who also designed the show’s set, lighting, sound and visual effects, “She Kills Monsters” jumps into the world of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons as a way for its central character to gain knowledge of the past, heal from a terrible tragedy and move fully into adulthood.
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The character in question is Agnes Evans (Katie Duerr), who teaches English at the Athens, Ohio, high school she attended. (Nguyen, by the way, went to Ohio University in Athens and started Vampire Cowboys there.)
At the top of the show, the Narrator (June Raven Romero) delivers the setup.
It’s 1995, “a time before Facebook, World of Warcraft” and massive multiplayer online role-playing games, and she wants us to meet a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) Dungeon Master “without fear, prejudice or a penis.” That would be Tilly Evans (Jeana Montgomery), aka Tillius the Paladin, Agnes’ younger sister.
It seems that Agnes, who looks like a walking “before” image for an antidepressant, made a wish for a less boring life on the night of her high school graduation. That wish came true, but not in the way she wanted: Her parents and 15-year-old Tilly were killed in a car crash.
Some years later, cleaning out the family home as she prepares to move in with her boyfriend Miles (Adam D. Crain), Agnes has discovered a notebook in Tilly’s messy old bedroom. She takes it to a geeky kid named Chuck (Ryan Bauta), whose D&D handle is DM Biggs. Chuck, who is exactly the opposite of the smooth operator he imagines himself to be, explains that the notebook is a module for a D&D adventure created by Tilly. Hoping to learn more about her sister’s thoughts and life, Agnes persuades Chuck to help her play the game.
“She Kills Monsters” toggles back and forth between the Quest for the Lost Soul of Athens and real life. Nguyen’s dialogue is sardonic, sweet, dotted with sexual double entendres and some vulgarities. It also captures the power of role-playing fantasies that catapult us from hum-drum lives into the worlds of infinite possibilities.
Rodaz, who is the real Dungeon Master at the helm of “She Kills Monsters,” creates a magically playful world with his production.
The set is simple: several ladders, some puffy clouds that change color, a trio of screens, the office occupied by the hilariously way-too-frank guidance counselor Vera (another role played by Romero). The costumes by Maria Rodaz pull us firmly into D&D territory, with a dominatrix look for the team’s “enforcer” Lilith (Anjuli Kaufman), an elf-as-supermodel outfit for the tracker Kaliope (Victoria Mesa), couch potato slob wear for Orcus (Victor Valdeon) and an array of black cloaks.
The director draws tonally smart performances from his young company, with Duerr leading the way as a young woman whose life is transformed by finally understanding the heart of the sister she never really knew. Montgomery’s Tilly, who returns to “life” as her D&D character, gives her sister crucial lessons in courage and fully embracing oneself.
Romero, Crain, Bauta, Kaufman, Mesa and Valdeon tear into their characters as though they’re playing D&D and determined to be victorious. So do Malik Archibald as the needy but ignored student Steve, and Shalia Sakona and Isabella Peña as the Succubi who engage in a killer cheerleader dance-off.
You needn’t know a thing about D&D to get and deeply enjoy “She Kills Monsters.” All you need to know is that Area Stage is serving up a joyful, touching, funny work by a playwright with a voice like no one else’s.
If you go
- What: ‘She Kills Monsters’ by Qui Nguyen.
- Where: Area Stage Company, 1560 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 30.
- Cost: $20-$25 (students $10).
- Information: 305-666-2078 or www.areastagecompany.com.