Write your own adventure
Self-discovery and dragon-slaying at Chico State
In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, you can assume any role you want. That’s the whole point. You get to live as a character not of this world, one with magical powers who goes on adventures with a party of fellow travelers.
It’s an attractive outlet—especially to a young person still figuring themselves out—to be able to explore your own imagination in an exciting alternate reality free of homework or social anxieties.
In She Kills Monsters, the fresh and playful theater department production that opens at Chico State’s Wismer Theatre tonight (Nov. 14), D&D is the central narrative device. And a young, awkward high-schooler named Tilly has written her own adventure, one that takes the characters and the audience on a journey through both the game and the confused and beautiful world of the teenage mind.
The play is billed as a dramatic comedy, and before it makes you laugh it gets serious. The setup: Agnes, a young schoolteacher, has her world rocked when her whole family—mom, dad and kid sister Tilly—are killed in a car accident. Agnes (played by Zoe Stamos) finds the D&D campaign book that Tilly wrote and decides to learn how to play the game so she can explore the story and maybe learn something about the sister from whom she’d grown apart.
Her guide through the game is the nerdy, almost-cool, flannel-clad high-schooler Chuck (Leif K. Bramer), an experienced dungeon master (DM) who brings the story of Tilly (Syndey Baichtal)—or Tillius the Paladin—to life for real. Agnes cautiously joins the campaign’s characters in the flesh—and there’s a lot of flesh. Demon queen Lilith Morningstar (Marlene Bruce) and dark elf Kaliope Darkwalker (Kelsey Campbell) are Tillius’ badass and sexy sidekicks, who can slay Bugbears and Ogres while wearing only a few scraps of fabric.
As Agnes joins her sister’s party, we soon find out that the attractive female cohorts are a clue to Tilly’s real-life identity quest. In fact, the whole campaign is full of connections to her life, and as the game progresses, Agnes gets to know her sister as she fights beside her.
She Kills Monsters was created by Qui Nguyen, a New York-based playwright whose “work is known for its innovative use of pop culture, stage violence, puppetry and multimedia,” and all of those elements are on display in this production.
I watched a rehearsal of the play, and theater instructor/director Matthew Teague Miller and his crew have transformed the black-box theater into Tilly’s fantasy world. A hidden fog machine blows a near-constant cloud of atmosphere across the faux stone walls of a huge bi-level castle-like structure that serves as a backdrop for bone-shattering battles vs. impressive-looking monsters accompanied by blaring metal, electronic and ’90s hip-hop music. Kudos to designers Jacob Brown (scenic), Michael Johnson (lighting) and students Oliver Loll (sound), Tristen Knox (costumes) and Kelsey Campbell (hair and makeup), as well as fight and dance choreographers Andrew Zollinger and Megan Glynn Zollinger.
The night I attended was the first dress rehearsal, and already the student actors seemed to have taken command of their roles. Bramer was perfect as the geeky DM (his DJ pantomime over the D&D game board during the music was hilarious). And all the players in Tillius’ campaign party—which would grow to include Eric Herrera as wisecracking Orcus, the recently retired Overlord of the Underworld—threw themselves into engaging characterizations and the battle scenes (there undoubtedly will be many bruises by the end of this run).
Even though it’s Tilly’s story being told, the central character is Agnes. And Stamos is wonderful in the complex lead role of a young woman navigating a rite of passage, as Agnes sheds her layer of normalcy, starts taking risks and eventually discovers her inner badass.
The power of the play lies in the dual purpose of the brilliant fantasy role-playing construct. It’s a magical way to present Tilly’s journey of self discovery, and it provides Agnes the means to rediscover the sister she’d lost and rewrite her own story along the way.