Walking into Parkland College’s Second Stage Theatre, my heart raced. It had been literal years since I’d seen a live theater performance before last night’s show. I love live theater, and I love opening nights especially: the energy, the nerves, the excitement.
Everything wonderful about live performance was still alive at Parkland College in last night’s opening night performance of She Kills Monsters: characters coming alive through the actors’ energic confidence, lights, sound, entrances, exits, and, of course, the applause.
I’ll share no spoilers in this article as I’d like for you to see this show unspoiled.
Walking in, the first thing I noticed — before even noticing the set — was that the audience seating and stage was different than the usual theater seating. The theater was set up with a traverse stage which had audience seats in two long rows on either side of the stage. Every seat seemed like a good seat for the show. The point of using a traverse stage for productions is to immerse the audience in the action onstage.
The audience was happily chattering before the lights went down at 7:30. I suggest arriving as close to 7 as possible as the show was sold out (and is sold out this whole weekend). Tickets are still available for next weekend. Masks are required for the audience.
On one side of the stage, there was a brightly colored, shiny side and on the other side, a muted black-and-white set. The colorful side had a handful of hexagon outlines on the floor in addition to a collection of miniature stages of varied heights with a single black composition notebook atop one, and the other side of the stage had a little table with metal chairs and the interior of a home kitchen painted on two tall white panels.
Waiting for the show to begin, I felt slightly uncomfortable seeing the audience across from me looking at me looking at them, but I was interested in the novelty of it. This intimacy with strangers was not a familiar feeling after the last two years, but it certainly was welcome. The vibe was upbeat, feet were tapping, and it seemed we were all ready to see live theater.
She Kills Monsters, written by Qui Nguyen and directed by Michael O’Brien, began with a hooded narrator giving the expositon: in 1995, a woman makes a wish that changes her life. An average woman named Agnes must break from her reality to entertain the fantasies of her younger sister Tilly through Dungeons & Dragons.
Agnes ditches her average, boring life to begin a quest to find someone to help her decode a composition notebook. She finds Chuck, a nerdy character jamming to music from a Walkman, who is willing to help her with understanding the messages in her sister’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign notes.
She Kills Monsters is rife with conflict: between the sisters, between heroes and villians, between what is part of reality and what is imagined. The actors playing the leads are clearly talented, and they captivated the audience with their portrayal of Agnes and Tilly. The sisters were played by actors Emma Petitt (Agnes) and Jess Schilpf (Tilly), and they were both impressive to watch. These actors performed the roles of the sisters so well that, at times, it felt so real, like I was watching authentic, visceral conversations between two real-life sisters.
The journey into the depths of the Dungeons & Dragons world abounds with niche terms from the fantasy role-playing game that lead to great comedic moments and clever wordplay — whether you’re familiar with the game Dungeons & Dragons or not. In Tilly’s fantasy world, we meet Tilly’s D&D character, a paladin, and her companions: a scantily-clad demon queen and a supermodel dark elf. As the group goes deeper into the D&D world, we also meet an overlord of the underworld, a homicidal fairy, and monsters in various boss levels that must be defeated.
When Chuck, the dungeon master, leads Agnes through the role-playing of D&D, he gives a (very) convincing performance of an intense D&D expert. His excellent timing, booming voice, and hand gestures were both hilarious and effective at explaining the imagined journey we took alongside Agnes into the D&D world.
There is young love and all the complicated feels that come with it. The play explores sisterly love, connections and lack thereof, and the longing for what could have been. The themes of romantic love within the play are complex and inclusive.
She Kills Monsters blurs the line between reality and fantasy through the artful juxtaposition onstage. What parts of reality are true? What is true in Dungeons & Dragons, and what is just make believe? We wonder as an audience as more of the details unfold in the play.
The play’s fight scenes were well choreographed and thrilling to watch. Solid reasons to fight were presented in the play, and as an audience member, I was invested in the outcome. The swords were heavy and clanged raucously during battles which sounded powerful and energetic with each clash. The fight scenes were complemented by well-timed physical comedy in subtle movements, pauses, and dynamic gestures.
Moreover, the entire cast showcased what is one of the most entertaining parts of theater: the characters. Many of the actors were cast in a role that required playing multiple characters, and seeing the range and breadth of characters from each actor was truly engrossing as an audience member.
The lighting team for this production of She Kills Monsters did an amazing job, as the lights played an integral role in this production. When scenes were set in reality, the audience lights were dimmed like a performance, but when the scenes dove into Dungeons & Dragon gameplay, the lights came up a bit, illuminating the audience and making us a part of the wild adventures in the fantasy world. Additionally, the scene transitions on a stage like this come not from curtain closing; the scenes were punctuated by the lights turned off, while actors and stagehands quickly rearranged the set before the lights came back up.
The 1990s references to music, clothes, and tv shows were nostalgic and funny. The profane language is ubiquitous including a character called “The Ass-hatted,” so the teen rating for the play is appropriate, but I found none of the language used in the show to be distracting or offensive as an adult. I will say the costumes seemed to have been made on a small budget, and the sound elements were often jarring and hard to understand. When the gamemaster described the beach in one scene, audio played overhead — and I was spooked thinking that I was hearing people screaming in pain over white noise. After listening for longer, I realized it was a sound bite of seagulls and ocean waves, but that’s one small technicality. Otherwise, the play is a lively production worth seeing.
Packed with epic battles, complicated relationships, dynamic puppetry, and wholesome feelings, Parkland’s She Kills Monsters takes the audience through an imaginative quest that ends in a satisfying finale. Buy your tickets here.
She Kills Monsters
November 4-6 at 7:30 p.m.
November 7 at 3 p.m.
November 12+13 at 7:30 p.m.
November 14 at 3 p.m.
November 4, 5, 6, and 7 performances are sold out.