I’m a certified D&D nerd. As in, run a campaign on Fridays, play on Saturdays, debate class archetypes with my friends for hours on an end and spend waaaaay too much money on dice and tiny little figurines.
“She Kills Monsters” is, therefore, the play for me.
The premise of the Connecticut Repertory Theater’s latest studio production is simple. Agnes (Vivienne James), a fresh-out-of-college English teacher, is coping with her parents’ and teenage sister Tilly’s untimely deaths in a car crash. The main focus of the performance is on Agnes and Tilly’s (Alexandra Brokowski) relationship-- or lack thereof. The two, growing up, are starkly different; where Agnes likes shopping, music, fashion and boys, Tilly instead reads fantasy novels and plays Dungeons and Dragons.
The game, and her sister’s obsession with it, drives Agnes to play in a campaign module her sister made, in an attempt to reconnect with her lost sibling. Run by nerdy high school dungeon master Chuck (Andrew Smith), Agnes tries to find the answers to her sister’s mostly unknown life.
The most charming thing about this performance is, by far, how they bring the campaign to life. Where in real life, a D&D session would have the (rather appealing) visual of a bunch of people sitting around a table wouldn’t make for much action. Instead, the characters in the session literally take action, with swords, spells and fists a-flying.
Also, if I may geek out for a moment? The puppetry in this show is amazing. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but whenever the characters fight monsters-- be they bugbears, dragons or even an annoying fairy-- you have no issues suspending your state of disbelief.
While the play has strong production design, it lacks the little moments. There were parts and characters that felt glossed over; Calliope (Betty Smith), the seductive elf mage, feels like a mere footnote when juxtaposed with the dimension of Tilly’s character and her dynamics with the demonic Lilith (Kristen Wolfe.) Agnes’ comedic foil/best friend, the useless guidance counselor Vera (Lily Ling) is more of a caricature than a character.
The humor hits the spot. If you think that having a God of Darkness reduced to sitting on a couch watching ‘Twin Peaks’ is absurdist, then you haven’t played a proper campaign. The kind of wacky, off-the-cuff gags and lines that this production throws at you are entirely on-par with the shenanigans you’d encounter in a typical game.
However, at times it felt too rapid fire. Sometimes I felt like the script was just hurling gag after gag at you, and seeing what stuck. While this might fly for a sitcom or a more comedic premise, for a play about mourning death and trying to reconnect (retroactively) with a dead sibling, it feels a bit forced.
Then again, we all have our way of coping. Something I appreciate about this play is that it never takes itself too seriously. Where it could have gone the somber route and focused more on the emotional turmoil of Agnes, or the relationship drama between her and her boyfriend, Miles (Perry Madison), it instead focuses its drama where it counts; which is to say, teenage angst, dealing with bullying and self-worth.
Even if you don’t play tabletop RPGs, this play was a winner for audiences.
“It was really moving in the coolest way,” said UConn sixth semester acting major Rebekah Berger. “It was a little unconventional, but it had the ability to surprise you. (Dungeons and Dragons) is not just a nerdy game; it’s an outlet.”
That is in the core of this play’s message. D&D, more than anything, is a form of escapism. I play it to be a badass western gunslinger, or a six-foot-tall angry pirate lady, or a grumpy old man wizard, and escape my worries for a bit by being what I’m not. Tilly did it to achieve the goals she never could in life (or in death) and Agnes played, ultimately, to reconnect with a sister she grew apart from.
Bottom line? It has heart. It has love. What it doesn’t have is subtlety, though I suppose that’s a part of its charm. And you know what? That’s OK. Few things are less subtle than fighting a five headed-dragon; and that’s the beauty in life.
“She Kills Monsters” will be running at the Studio Theater from March 22-31. Visit https://crt.uconn.edu/ to check times and order tickets.
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.