When she discovers a Dungeons & Dragons module written by her late sister, Tilly, Agnes Smith decides to play through the game in the hopes that it will help her understand the little sister that she never really knew. This is She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Nguyen’s script is a refreshing new take on the old idea of a character seeking to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. The use of a game like D&D is quite inspired as it is a game where a person could easily infuse her or his essence into it and be his or her true self. Most of the game moments are played up, quite well, for comedy, but a few dramatic revelations are made which then skillfully and smoothly connect with the real world and make Agnes’ growing understanding of her sister quite believable.
Beth Thompson provides a pretty effective piece of direction to this production. Her staging is quite nice making use of the entire stage as well as the aisles of the Howard Drew Theatre. She demonstrates a thorough understanding of the script by playing up the comedic moments for all they are worth, but knows when to get serious with the more dramatic moments of the story. The acting of her performers is quite capable with a pair of stirring performances in the form of her two leading characters.
I think this play is one of the friendliest to character actors I’ve ever seen as it provides a lot of fun characters for a performer to sink his or her teeth into. Some of the night’s most rib-tickling performances come from Kevin Gosford who had the crowd guffawing with his take on Orcus, a lazy and retired overlord of the underworld who’d rather watch TV than take souls and fight heroes; Carrie Beth Stickrod who provides laugh out loud moments as a foul mouthed, ineffective guidance counselor and a malevolent fairy guarding the five headed dragon, Tiamatt; and Will Rodgers as the hapless Steve who routinely gets brutalized in the world of D&D and pushed around by Ms Stickrod’s guidance counselor in the real world.
But this play does rest on the shoulders of the two actors playing Tilly and Agnes and Chloe Irwin and Catie Zaleski are more than up to the task of carrying that burden. The two performers have a symbiotic chemistry with each other and truly feel like real sisters.
Ms Irwin dominates the show with a compelling performance as Tilly. Indeed, she has a poise, presence, and naturalness to her acting that many experienced veterans would envy. She definitely nails the essence of the little sister by being a constant pain to Agnes and even peppering her with the insults one would expect from a younger sibling. It is clear that D&D is the only place where she ever felt free as her alter-ego of Tillious is brave and confident and is able to indulge in real life fantasies or deal with the difficulties of growing up. Some of her best moments come when Tilly drops the façade of Tillious to be completely open and honest with Agnes about herself and their relationship.
Catie Zaleski is rock solid as Agnes. She expertly presents an ordinary person who discovers life as she really learns about her sister through the playing of her module. Her transformation from a disinterested player to a full blown participant is played out well as she slowly peels off the layers of her resistance to the game and, symbolically, her sister. It’s also quite humorous how heavily she gets into the game as it is implied she is playing out both sides of the conversation with her sister which makes some of the insults she receives such as having her avatar be called Agnes the Asshatted even funnier.
Ms Zaleski handles the comedy of the piece quite well, especially as she gets raked over the coals in the early playing of the game. But she also handles the drama equally well as she discovers some of her sister’s secrets and how that begins to affect her real life.
Shannon Smay has composed an awesome score for this show with ominous music well suited for a playing of D&D. Christopher Dills’ set brilliantly merges the messy bedroom of Tilly (further enhanced by the props of Darin Kuehler and Carrie Velez) with the guidance counselor’s office and a spiral staircase at center stage is a nice touch for introducing characters. Darren Golden’s lights enhance the piece with atmospheric lighting for bright forests and deep, dank caves and other locales in New Landia. John Giblilsco provides some A level sounds and Amy Elizabeth Schweid provides some amusing fight choreography for the big battle sequences. But she also provides some truly realistic blows in quick skirmishes, such as a backhand delivered to Agnes with such ferocity it drew an audible gasp from me.
Extreme praise is due to Amanda Fehlner for an extraordinary piece of costume design for this production. Her costuming is pitch perfect for the piece including the Xenaesque outfit worn by Tillious, the red, furry, demonic bodysuit for Orcus, and the bugbear outfits, just to name a few.
There were a few minor blips in the show. Energy seemed a bit low, volume needed stepping up from some actors, and the pace could be quickened, but these did little to dampen an original night of theatre.
It may be a tried and true formula, but this is the most original take on a journey of discovery that you’re ever likely to see.
She Kills Monsters plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Nov 4. Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets begin at $30 for adults and $18 for students. For tickets visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or call the box office at 402-553-0800. Due to some strong language and sensitive themes, this play is not recommended for young children. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.