You wouldn’t believe that a show set in a small theater in Chinatown, NY could so penetrate the imagination, but Qui Nguyen‘s She Kills Monsters—a partnership between his troupe Vampire Cowboys and the Flea Theater’s resident company The Bats—has you believing that you’re in playing Dungeons & Dragons with your friends. A three-dimensional version of D&D, complete with hot elves, harrowing battles, and a terrifying dragon.
“Average Agnes,” an uptight college grad (Satomi Blair), returns home when her family is killed in a car crash. She regrets never being closer with her younger sister Tilly (Allison Buck), an adventurous but nerdy girl who was regarded as a weirdo. But when Agnes stumbles upon Tilly’s D&D module and begins a campaign, it’s like she’s opened her sister’s diary: Playing the game reveals her sister’s friendships, conflicts at school, and thoughts on perfect Agnes herself.
Monsters achieves a twofold success in grounding us in dual worlds: A D&D campaign, and the ’90s. The latter is a lesson in how visceral music is, and how the right Beck or Spice Girls track sets the year better than the fashions or catchphrases of the time (though there’s plenty of those, too). Irreverent but detailed touches make it clear that Vampire Cowboys had a lot of fun constructing this D&D world. A map of New Landia flips down from the ceiling when called upon; the narrator—channeling Galadriel from Lord of the Rings—glides in on roller blades; there’s even a Gelatinous Cube. Really, we are immersed in the game without having to move a muscle.
Monsters utilizes some of the common conventions of “let’s humanize nerds” stories, but it does so sparingly. One of the D&D players is disabled in real life; Agnes’ boyfriend Miles assumes that the game is some depraved sexual kink.
An especially challenging aspect that the company handled beautifully was the role-playing. Simple transitions of a school bell or a sword slashing through the air took care of the abrupt switches between high school and New Landia. So involved do we get in the gameplay that there are two moments that jerk you out of the action, one funny and one heartbreaking; I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that one addresses Tilly’s presence as a memory rather than a person.
Now that she’s starting to better understand Tilly’s hopes and angsts, Agnes becomes obsessed with playing the game more, delving further into her sister’s subconscious. She embodies the stereotype of an anti-social gamer, but in an unexpected and not cruel way. Something else that Monsters wonderfully illustrates is how difficult it is to be caught between social groups. Agnes is a teacher at Tilly’s school, where she starts to put faces to the kids in Tilly’s module; yet she games with one of those students, Dungeon Master Chuck Biggs (Jack Corcoran). However, she’s also trying to move on from Tilly’s death and do “adult” things like move in with Miles.
There are some parts that do nothing for the story, like everyone in Agnes’ life criticizing her for not marrying Miles. The one part where the story is lacking concerns the rushed prologue and Agnes’ family’s death; she seems to mourn only Tilly and not her parents, and she doesn’t seem to display survivor’s guilt. Considering that her wish for a less average life occurred on the same night as their fatal car crash, you would expect her to feel responsible, however irrational that may be.
It’s incredible how Agnes is able to reconstruct Tilly from this module and Chuck’s role-playing. Tilly’s gaming with her Dungeon Master might not have been sexual, as Miles assumed, but it was undeniably an intimate relationship.
And the dragon. Have we talked about the dragon? Despite the play being called She Kills Monsters and featuring a schoolgirl fighting off a five-headed creature on the poster, we weren’t going to expect a dragon—or, as the players call it, the Tiamat. But the production came through, and it is incredible.
Don’t miss the chance to see this play. I laughed, cried, and cheered my way through it. It’s a stunning example of the power of visceral live theater; plus, it’s heartening to see geekery rendered so lovingly on the stage.
She Kills Monsters finishes its run this Friday in New York City, December 23; performances this week are Tuesday-Friday at 7 p.m. The Flea is located at 41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal, close to the A/C/E, N/R/Q, 6, J/M/Z and 1 subway lines. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.theflea.org. Please also note, all Tuesday performances are Pay-What-You-Can (one ticket per person; subject to availability at the door only).
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes, and one of the Playwrights-in-Residence at True False Theatre. You can find her on Twitter.