ITHACA, NY -- In response to the pandemic, playwright Qui Nguyen (“Vietgone”) adapted his popular Dungeons & Dragons-set drama “She Kills Monsters” for virtual performance. The script, both zany and gentle, has a youthful exuberance and huge heart, making it popular on both high school and college campuses.
When director Cynthia Henderson picked it last spring for Ithaca College’s Fall 2020 season, she was anticipating a live onstage version, and student scenic designer Madeleine Dieterle created the models and plans for a non-virtual set. Come this past fall, plans had to change quickly, and Henderson had the luck to team up with Chrissy Guest, who was teaching a live event production course over at the Park School of Communications (Guest did much of the video work for the Hangar’s virtual summer season).
The thrilling result combined the efforts of a 13-member cast and well over 30 students working directly behind the scenes. Scenic Designer Dieterle and Lighting Designer Melanie Spiel’s design idea boards were reimagined for the virtual realm by a seven-member design team out of Park, while costume designer Pelle Melio worked with cast members to pull fantasy costumes out of their closets. The DIY aesthetic merged well with the play. Benjamin Stayer added particular relish with his compositions redolent of both video games and LOTR.
All Agnes aspires to is being normal, belonging. A high school senior, she is a cheerleader with a boyfriend, Miles, on the football team. She doesn’t get her kid sister, Tilly, who annoys her with her geekiness. Then Tilly dies in an auto accident, and Agnes is set on a journey into a D&D quest when she discovers Tilly’s diary. The play alternates between this fantasy realm, high school and Agnes’ bedroom.
While much fun is had with demons, ogres, elves and “Bulbasaur,” the twin axes of the action are Agnes working through her grief as she unfolds Tilly’s secret life and the empowerment that the girls achieve in projecting themselves into a heroic life-or-death quest. (The use of role-play is of course also deliciously meta-theatrical.)
As Agnes, Ronee Goldman brought forward a swirl of yearning, confusion, and wry common -sense. Jess Brock’s Tilly combined spunk, valor and generosity, spiked with gender fluidity (her D&D character is the male Tillius the Paladin). Joseph d’Amore’s Miles was more endearingly doofish than cocky, and steadfast (Miles also becomes a Gelatinous Cube and a woeful Bard). Isabelle Dickey’s character differed greatly in the fantasy and real-life realms. As Lilith she was a ferocious and stylish Demon Queen, as Lilly she was a shy closeted teenager who turns out to be Tilly’s girlfriend. Goldman and Dickey were poignant in the simplicity and sincerity they brought to their tense, tender high-school encounters.
Alaysia Duncan and Lilli Herrick flung attitude and camp pointedly as the mean girls, bullies made into succubi. Kyle Friedman had a sweet turn as a hapless D&D mage; while Rhea Yadav played an assertive Dark Elf as Kelly/Kalliope; accompanied by her brother Ronnie, a rather whimsical demon named Orchus, comicly limned by Achille Ricca; and Sinclair DuMmont as a feisty fairy guardian named Farrah. Teresa Gelsomini employed a patrician knowingness as the Narrator, while Elie McCoy scored as Agnes’ sarcastic best friend, Vera.
Among this truly ensemble cast, Rafael López shone as the Dungeon Master, Chuck. Part stoner geek, part stumbling male nerd, he is also the stage manager of this world and infuses a sense of calm into the perils faced. A laid-back yet sharply timed performance.
“She Kills Monsters” provided a dazzling, zany evening, firmly grounded in teenage reality. Above all, it communicated a sense of hope in a dark month.