By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Keltie Forsyth. A UBC Department of Theatre and Film production. At the Chan Centre’s Telus Studio Theatre on Thursday, January 18. Continues until February 3
“This is a D&D adventure, not therapy!”
Actually, She Kills Monsters is a little of both, and UBC Theatre’s production perfectly conveys the geekery, heart, heroics, and humour found in Qui Nguyen’s pop-culture play.
Set in mid-’90s Ohio, Tilly (Heidi Damayo) is a 16-year-old Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast, to the mild disdain of her older sister, Agnes (Natalie Backerman), who has no time at all for the notorious fantasy role-playing game. Within the first 10 minutes of the play, Agnes wishes for her own life to be less boring, and She Kills Monsters delivers as Agnes is ultimately sucked into her sister’s self-designed D&D map on an epic quest for Tilly’s lost soul. (Tilly was grappling with the realization she was a lesbian when she died tragically.)
In Nguyen’s writing, the emotional beats of the journey manage to feel both familiar and fresh, and within the framework of the wildly imaginative, fantastical world of D&D, anything is possible. There are swords and demons and dragons, as well as massive puppets, ambitious lighting design and projections, and incredible, action-packed fight sequences. This is such a physical show, and after the third or fourth battle, just when the audience is beginning to disengage and get a little bored by the grunting blows and the stabbing lunges, a new piece of choreography is introduced, like a shot of adrenaline to a slowed heartbeat.
The program lists five people in charge of fighting and choreography, including fight directors Mike Kovac and Ryan McNeill Bolton, and She Kills Monsters owes its success at least in part to their brilliant work. The entire cast is obviously having a great time with the material, and no matter how small the part, each brings their best to their performance. Backerman draws out Agnes’s harder edges with some good comedic timing, and Damayo, perfect as Tilly, is also a gifted physical performer. It’s a joy watching Damayo reveal Tilly’s layers through a combination of sword mastery, flying kicks, and barbed-wire vulnerability.
From the technical and multimedia components to the footwork and fight choreography, not to mention a sizable cast that’s often tasked with playing “real” and “D&D” versions of their characters, She Kills Monsters could be overwhelming and kind of sloppy. Instead, director Keltie Forsyth pulls off the near-impossible by not only wresting control of this multiheaded beast, but making it coalesce into a meaningful and vibrant work that illuminates the power of pop culture and the arts, and of equality and imagination.