“If a hooded stranger approached me in real life, I would mace him.”
It’s 1995 in Ohio and Tilly Evans is a teenage Dungeon Master who dispatches goblin-like Kobalds with ease. But not even the most ancient of blades can match the perils of suburban traffic. After Tilly dies in a car wreck, her sister Agnes must commence a mythic quest of her own.
So begins Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters,” a bittersweet coming-of-age story filled with demon queens, secret tomes and ragtag adventurers battling for lost souls.
“It’s smart and fun and sweet and nerdy in all the best ways,” said William Whitaker, professor of practice in drama in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Whitaker will direct “She Kills Monsters” Oct. 22-31 in Edison Theatre.
“It’s like staging a musical, except instead of songs, we have fights.”
Inside the game
Nguyen, co-founder of the OBIE Award-winning “geek theater” company Vampire Cowboys, was screenwriter of the Disney feature “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) and has written for Marvel Studios and Netflix, among others. “She Kills Monsters,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2011, delights in the pre-internet culture of multiplayer role-playing games but also grapples with themes of grief, family and sexuality.
The story begins a few years after Tilly’s death. Agnes, now a teacher at her sister’s former high school, enlists a young Dungeon Master, Chuck, to help decipher Tilly’s old gaming notebook. As the real world falls away, the pair are joined by the leather-clad Lilith, the white-haired Kaliope and the black-horned Orcus — and by the spirit of Tilly herself.
“There are flashbacks to high school or asides in Agnes’ apartment, but the bulk of the show takes place inside the game,” Whitaker said. “It’s a big mashup of armor and swords, Matrix- and video game-style fights and ogres who watch ‘Friends’ on TV.”
“Agnes was five years older than Tilly,” Whitaker added. “In some ways, they hardly knew each other. Agnes is trying to discover who Tilly really was. But as we come to learn, so much of this fantasy world is about claiming — or perhaps not having to deal with — your own true inner self.”
Though the PAD has continued to mount shows throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — on Zoom, in streaming videos and even outdoors on the Danforth Campus — “She Kills Monsters” is the department’s first full-scale production in nearly two years. During performances, cast members will remain masked unless 6 feet apart, a constraint that Whitaker has urged them to embrace.
“It can work in a play like this, because the story is so big,” Whitaker said. “We’ve talked about how to embody that boldness in body language and articulation. And I’ve asked the actors to look for those moments when the punctuation of the mask coming off makes sense.
“These are characters who really understand the event of themselves.”
Cast and crew
The cast of 13 stars Naomi Blair and Raevyn Ferguson as Agnes and Tilly, with Stephen Reaugh as Chuck and Dylan McKenna as Miles, Agnes’ boyfriend. Isabel Koleno and Ella Sherlock are Lilith and Kaliope, respectively. Jake Steinberg is Orcus. Andre Harte is the great mage Steve. Brenna Jones plays Evil Gabbi, among other roles. Sofia McGrath, Caitlin Souers and Bela Marcus are Monsters 1, 2 and 3. Sarah Wilkinson is both narrator and Farrah the Faerie.
Sets and costumes are by Patrick Huber and Nikki Green, with props by Emily Frei. Lighting and sound are by Lara Kling and Ben Lewis. Sean Savoie is digital media programmer. Melissa Freilich is fight choreographer. Nathaniel Holmes is dance choreographer. Miranda Jagels Félix is assistant director. Oldi Rodriguez is technical director. Stage manager is Emily Clinger, with assistance from Simran Wadhwa and John Noonan.
Performances of “She Kills Monsters” will begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22 and 23; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24. Performances will continue the following weekend, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29 and 30, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31. The Oct. 30 performance will feature American Sign Language interpretation.
All performances take place in Edison Theatre, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20; free for WashU students; or $15 for seniors, other students and WashU faculty and staff. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office. For information about campus COVID-19 policies, visit the WashU Together website.
For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.