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She Kills Monsters
Yet every so often something comes along to remind me that there was a time when gaming geeks weren’t cool. . .and how passionate they remained about games despite that fact. The Flea Theater’s She Kills Monsters is just such a reminder, and if it doesn’t get everything right, its heart is always in the right place.
Qui Nguyen’s play follows the life of Agnes Evans (Satomi Blair), a typical high school English teacher in a typical Midwestern town in the mid-nineties, who desperately wishes for her life to be less boring—and gets her wish when her entire family is killed in a car crash, including her younger sister Tilly (Allison Buck). The backdrop of tragedy feels a bit odd at first for a play which starts with a narrator hyperbolically describing the details of a battle between Tilly’s game character and several monsters. But as Agnes begins to play an adventure written by her younger sister in a bid to get to know the deceased Tilly better, the setup makes more sense. After all, Tilly had written her life into the adventure from her bullying at the hands of two cheerleaders (in the game transformed into two equally annoying demonic succubi) to her less than positive opinion of Agnes’ boyfriend Miles (Bruce A. Lemon, and in the game memorably made into a gelatinous cube/shapeshifter. . .well, never mind. It’s something nasty made of acid, and that’s enough!). Agnes finds nothing about the world even remotely appealing at first, but as time goes on she discovers why Tilly liked it so much—and how much she never understood her geeky sister.
I don’t want to call this a subtle reflection on family dynamics, because any play which turns demons into bored, redfaced people wearing track suits and angelic fairies into foul-mouthed serial killers really isn’t about nuance. In fact this is one of the show’s principal problems: like most plays about the world of fantasy gaming, it’s often willing to rely on eye-rolling clichés (like the high school-aged male Dungeon Master trying to push Agnes’ character into a lesbian love scene, or the absurdly sexualized nature of practically every character and monster in the game) while mixing in some utterly unbelievable outbursts from the play’s real life figures. No matter how upset Agnes is, she’s still a high school teacher: telling two students to *bleep* off because of what she thinks they did to her sister would mean an immediate suspension and almost certainly termination, yet here the whole incident passes without further consequence. Since the play obviously isn’t meant to be a farce, these kinds of inconsistencies are disappointing.
But never mind these disappointments. She Kills Monsters works anyway, and the emotional heart of the production is a big reason why it does. Blair and Buck play their characters sensitively and compassionately. Director Robert Ross Parker deserves credit for tracing a middle ground between obvious camp and afterschool special. At times it’s surprisingly touching, and at others just fun (especially the climactic battle between Agnes’ character and the five headed dragon Tiamat, even if the production people go a little bit overboard with the smoke machine). And it’s often clever, capturing the feel of the nineties without seeming dated—nostalgic, but not maudlin.
When the show was over and the lights up, I sat in my chair for a few seconds with a quiet smile on my face, remembering. Any play that can do that deserves a positive review. Whether or not you ever played a heroic paladin or wise wizard, if you know true devotion when you see it, She Kills Monsters is worth seeing.
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