Cape Fear Community College’s Department of Theatre presents “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen in the Studio Theater of the Wilson Center. Nguyen’s 2011 script is his most well-known and successful work. It is in frequent demand around the nation for community and college productions. Much of Nguyen’s body of work utilizes comic-book themes and geek culture, so it is not surprising it would appeal to college-aged demographics. “She Kills Monsters” looks at storytelling as a vehicle for connecting our own lives with others, and for developing the ability to understand the experiences we have.
Dressed in a sparkling silver hooded cape, The Narrator (Ashe Johnsen) introduces the audience to the early ‘90s: a time before massive online role-playing games, when folks had to actually use their imaginations and skills to create the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Director Jessica Gaffney and sound designers Matt Borneman and Vivian Hornstein have put together a soundtrack firmly in the ‘90s for pre-show and intermission music. Intermission begins with Blind Melon (which for me represents always a sunny afternoon in Chapel Hill in 1993). It seems appropriate nostalgia is the first emotion evoked; a big piece of the show is about trying to take a trip down memory lane to a series of memories that don’t exist, with the hope of finding those connections.
Welcome to Athens, Ohio, the most normal and boring place on earth—home of the most normal and boring person on earth, Agnes Evans (Maeve Cosgrove). Agnes makes the tragic error of wishing her life would be less boring. When her parents and younger sister, Tilly (Dorey O’Connor), are killed in an accident, she finds her normal, boring life turned upside down, as she tries to navigate the strange and terrible landscape that is grief. While packing up the family home, Agnes comes across a notebook of Tilly’s that turns out to be a plan for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. She tracks down Dungeon Master Chuck Biggs (Malik Fowler) to help her play the campaign. Fowler is a much-needed burst of energy in a show that, up to this point, feels bogged down. Fowler’s Chuck is not only delighted by life and D&D, but is thrilled to have the attention.
“Chuck is great,” my date commented. “I want to be friends with Chuck.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “He’s got a good heart and a great sense of humor.”
So Agnes—the dowdy, frumpy high-school English teacher that she is—sets off to play this D&D campaign under Chuck’s direction. Imagine her surprise to discover the leader of the campaign is Paladin Tillius, her deceased sister. The party also includes Lillith (Chaelynne Schweers), the daughter of the devil, and Kaliope (Magen Naff), a dark elf. It is a rough introduction for Cosgrove’s Agnes who is not the most bending, adaptive or accommodating person on the planet. This is part of the problem: She was never very interested in Tilly while Tilly was alive. As a teenager and young adult, she was wrapped up in her own life. Now that Tilly is dead, she realizes she knows virtually nothing about her younger sister. D&D is just the beginning of this journey. Cosgrove does indeed show us a very uncomfortable person trying to process myriad emotions she never expected to face.
The goal of the campaign is to recover Tillius’ lost soul and therefore save Newlandia, which takes our fearless crew to see Orcus (Kaleb Bradley)—a TV-obsessed demon. Bradley ups the ante on the ensemble. He’s in the moment, he’s listening, he’s responding, and he has a fully developed character that can play humor while still pursuing a specific objective.
Perhaps it is the eternally pissed-off school guidance counselor, Vera (Rachel Briggs), who is the most relatable. Who among us hasn’t watched a close friend grieve and seriously screw up his life? Vera, when not blowing off poor Steve (Tanner Betts)—a humble student who wants merely to seek her guidance in his college application process—is determined to save Agnes from herself. We meet Steve both in reality and also in the D&D Campaign as Mage Steve. This poor guy is so eternally beat up by everyone, either physically or verbally, he is almost a Monty Python character. His repeated appearances were so delightful, he had his own cheering section during my visit. Seriously, each entrance and subsequent death were met with cries of “Steve! Steve! Steve!” from the back row.
In addition to navigating grief, Agnes is also navigating a relationship with a less-than-stellar Miles (Beau Gibson). Gibson’s Miles appears to be employed, at least enough to have an apartment and a leather jacket. It seems to be all he has to recommend him in the boyfriend/potential mate department. Lucky for Miles, there are women who consider that adequate. Vera doesn’t and wants better for her friend. (Amen.)
As Agnes delves deeper and learns more about her sister and the world of the high school where she teaches, she meets the cheerleaders from hell (Madison Struckman and Erica Betts) and a very vicious faerie (Abigail Hunter), all while battling an assortment of monsters (Leah Brown and Matt Borneman). It is quite simply a hell of a journey for a sweet, well-meaning high school English teacher. Cosgrove and O’Connor are far more patient with each other than I have ever seen any set of siblings, who usually snap at each other and fight at the drop of a hat. These two spend a lot of time looking at each other meaningfully and waiting each other out in silence. It is more of a battle of endurance than anything else.
I really like this script; it approaches themes of grief, bullying, LGBT-plus youth, coming of age, loss, screen addiction, and finding your tribe in a smart way. Also, I was curious to see the black box theatre at the Wilson Center, which is pretty remarkable. I think back to the old SRO in Kenan Hall at UNCW, which could easily fit four times into this space.
The production values are fabulous. Gaffney utilizes vertical fabric columns for projections to create a forest the D&D party journey through. It is a spectacular choice that gives the performers room to maneuver, and it creates depth. Though the gelatinous cube is not a really great effect, the rest of the costumes are super: pure fantasy in D&D Newlandia. Tilly’s cloak is particularly alluring in blue, and the wigs for Lillith and Kaliope look really believable. Agnes and Miles are so very sadly ‘90s, I cringed while revisiting those fashion choices.
Gaffney has a clear vision and a great eye for detail. It looks like the students are in great hands with her.