By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Has the never-ending sameness of contemporary entertainment gotten you down? Does having to pick between the cartoon Lion King, a bootleg of the Broadway Lion King or the live-action Lion King make you wonder why you even bother? Did the news that the coronavirus has put the kibosh on the Mission: Impossible filming in Italy not even register because you still haven’t watched the last two? Have you found yourself an unwilling, non-voting citizen of the Marvel Universe? Well, maybe the Theatre Factory has something for you.
Say hello to Qui Nguyen, an off-off-Broadway playwright garnering increasing notice nationwide. Not only is Nguyen a playwright, but he’s also a big-time fight director and most of the stuff he’s written seems to hint at an amalgamation of the two. Titles like Aliens vs. Cheerleaders, Six Rounds of Vengeance, Alice in Slasherland and Vampire Cowboy Trilogy promises a gleeful anarchy and welcome relief from the bland repetitiveness mummifying our culture.
Probably Nguyen’s biggest “hit” is a comedy/drama he wrote in 2011 called She Kills Monsters. After making a splash in New York, followed by several important regional productions, the play’s now popping up at academic and community theaters.
It’s a complete head-spinner of a script concerning a prim school teacher, Agnes, still mourning the recent death of her parents and younger sister Tilly. While packing up personal effects, she comes across a notebook of Tilly’s filled with indecipherable words and phrases. In desperation she tracks down a nerdy friend of her sister, Chuck, who recognizes the notebook; Tilly, along with a group a friends, were avid “Dungeons and Dragons” players and the scribbling was a quest Tilly had created. The relationship between Agnes and Tilly had always been distant so Agnes decides that, to get to know her sister’s life better, she’ll play the module written by Tilly.
She Kills Monsters continues through March 8 at The Theatre Factory, Trafford. 412/374-9200. www.TheTheatreFactory.com
The bulk of She Kills Monsters is Agnes inside the game, working through the various levels and quests where, surprise!, a phantom Tilly is her side-kick. Or maybe Agnes is the side-kick. Whatever. The two move through the adventure, along with some cohorts, battling enemies. I have never in my life played Dungeons & Dragons so I’m sure I screwed up that description of game play. Sorry, geeks.
What’s particularly interesting is that every character Tilly had written inside her D&D world is based on a friend she had in real life … who, through the course of the play, we meet in the outside world.
To tell you the truth, almost none of it makes any sort of linear sense. But the joke’s on you because it doesn’t make even the slightest bit of difference. She Kills Monsters is a roller coaster of a play; the steep climbs and breathtaking drops are the joy of the ride, seeking out logic or consistency misses the whole loopy fun of the world Nguyen is creating.
This script would be – in even the most seasoned hands – a near impossible feat to manage. Having produced a show or two in my time, I start twitching a bit thinking about how exhausting it would be giving life to the constant whirl of the playwright’s imagination, the utter lack of solid narrative ground and the not inconsiderable technical demands (this is the sort of show that could the prop, costume, light and set designers and crew straight to the ICU.)
I really do wish I could say that this Theatre Factory version has the appropriate production and talent resources to vanquish all naysayers. The fact that I can’t isn’t really a headline, however. This small community theater in Trafford is pushing itself to its absolute limits staging a show unlike anything they’ve ever done before … and certainly something their audiences have never seen.
What they lack in 100% triumph is a large cast of performers who are clearly deeply moved and energized by this script and expend every drop of commitment and ability in putting it across the footlights.
Randi Walker and Kiah Harrington-Wyler do well as Agnes and Tilly when they confront hidden truths. Elise Brado and Kaitlin Cliber are delightfully vicious as a pair of evil bitches. Betsy Novotny and Kaylyn Farneth impress as very limber warrior princesses while Brendan Karras as a slacker demon, Brandon Farneth as the pervy nerd and Devin Marshall playing a hapless dope get plenty of laughs.
Director Matt Mlynarksi makes his job so much harder with an awkward set design and floor plan … if ever a show demanded swift cross fades rather than continual, energy-draining blackouts, this is it.
I do salute Theatre Factory for taking such a huge leap of faith with She Kills Monsters. And if the thoughts of seeing another Fast & Furious movie makes you stumble and yawn, this might just be the answer.