Kill All the Monsters
If you had the power to create your own fantasy adventure realm, what would your epic saga be? What characters would you summon as allies, enemies, or both, on your grand and perilous quest? Would you be the triumphant hero and get the girl against all odds, or suffer a tragic demise battling an undefeatable foe?
Behold! The Leeward Theatre’s production of Qui Nguyen’s 2011 She Kills Monsters blurs lines and collides worlds in this role-playing romp through grief, wish fulfillment, and self-discovery! Capitalizing on current Stranger Things popularity, and staged in the 50-seat Leeward Theatre Alternate Space (AM-101, due to theatre renovations), the approx. 2-hour show (intermission included) delivers comedic camp, epic badassery, and heartfelt emotional impact, all in daring and dynamic signature Leeward Community College style. Much love going out to my old stomping grounds. Them LCC people are crazy.
Set in 1995 Athens, Ohio and following the unexpected death of her teenage sister, Tilly (Janei Matsuda), due to car crash, older sis Agnes Evans (Juvy Lucina) is in the process of packing up their lives to leave their childhood home, when she discovers one of Tilly’s notebooks containing a mysterious Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) “module,” penned by the late sister herself. Modules are sort of like reference manuals for gameplay, containing character and setting descriptions, backstories, and quests for the participants. So, in an effort to better know her weird little sister —something she neglected to do in while Tilly was alive— sensible, practical Agnes takes the notebook, this window into her dead sibling’s heart, mind, and soul, to Chuck (Alaka‘i Cunningham), the local comic book shop owner and Tilly’s friend. He agrees to run the campaign as Dungeon Master (DM), and we’re off!—Careening through a domain of orcs, kobolds, and bugbears, on the “Quest for the Lost Soul of Athens.”
The action flips back and forth between normal Reality and Tilly’s alternate world, New Landia, where Agnes meets a host of fantastical warriors and frightening creatures, sure to entertain even those unversed in D&D lore. Nguyen’s script is wickedly fun as it plays upon the fantasy/adventure genre, 90s nostalgia, and general geekery of those underdogs on the outskirts of society. And therein lies the real heart of the play: in one way or another, we’re all geeks, judged and picked on by the bullies of the world. In Nguyen’s 1995 Ohio, the normal world said women should be married and have a kid (or two) by their mid-20s. Imagine growing up LGBTQ in that culture. How might one escape? By becoming the hero of one’s own D&D module, mayhaps? Mayhaps. Or maybe one plays D&D just because it’s an awesome game. Maybe all of the above. Anyway you look at it, Nguyen does faithful homage to the classic tabletop role-playing game (RPG), and you can tell the Leeward gang has a great time with the material.
Matsuda as Tilly’s avatar “Tillius the Paladin,” and Lucina as “Agnes the— (I won’t spoil it), are a strong central duo with a solid connection. And while it would’ve been nice to see a few instances of sisterly lightheartedness between the two, they each have respective moments of real tenderness and anguish. Cunningham’s DM Chuck gets the plot rocking with energy and silliness, and even though his affected “geek” voice can be a little much, when things get serious, he’s a sincere guide between reality and Agnes’ trek through Tilly’s fantasy. Nai‘a Aplaca and Jarica Mae Abella kick serious ass in serious ass-kicking outfits as Kaliope and Lilith, and also give the show emotional depth as their real-life Ohio counterparts, especially Abella’s Lilly. Always good to see stage veterans Andy Valencia (Vera) and Kris10 Misaki (Farrah the Faerie), with Misaki’s foul-mouthed-and-adorable Farrah stealing her scene. Speaking of scene-stealers, Kira Moriguchi and Noelle Lum Kee as Evil Tina and Evil Gabby are the effing worst in the best way possible as tormenting, taunting succubi bullies of the story, and Riley Mattison as the Great Mage Steve is just great as the GREAT. MAGE. STEVE. Comedic gold. But the highest roll comes from Jonathan Sabalboro for his nuanced portrayal of Agnes’ boyfriend, Miles. Very nice emotional range from the young actor.
Director Betty Burdick does a good job keeping the action and energy flowing, and Fight/Associate Director Nicolas Logue from WCC does a great job choreographing multiple stage combat sections in the intimate performance space. Masks by Michael Harada are gruesome and imaginative, and work well with furry and fanciful costumes by Jonathan Reyn. Smart set design by Donald J. Ranney Jr. gives the feel of a dark, ominous dungeon while also accommodating locations in the real world, and these settings are deftly added to by dramatic, isolating lighting (best when coupled with fog effects) by Sarah Y. Whitehead, and spot-on sound with 90s callbacks and dramatic battle music by Claire Ranney.
To be fair, the show isn’t perfect. Some of the acting is too over-the-top or not developed enough, while facets of design/tech could be stronger. Minor notes abound. On one hand, you could say that these minor notes add up to give an impression of sloppiness to the production. But on the other, the rough edges add to the show’s adrenalized, action-oriented vibe. Either way, fuck it. I still had a wild good time and I think you will too.
So to reiterate, we’re all geeks. Embrace your inner one, join the party, and choose your own adventure. She Kills Monsters plays for two more weekends. Get your avatar down to the Leeward Theatre Alternate Space and vanquish every single monster in your life. Bullying, fear, close-mindedness… Kill all the monsters.