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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre Review: She Kills Monsters brings Dungeons & Dragons & drama

Qui Nguyen's play is sprawling, brawling love letter to geekdom

Delving into the adventurous world of Dungeons & Dragons, the Theatre at UBC production of the Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters is a gorgeously constructed cartoon come to life. The light-hearted romp is brimming with epic battles, colourful beasts, and rampant 90’s pop culture references.

Our heroine is Agnes, a schoolteacher whose nerdy little sister, Tilly, died several years earlier in a car accident. Agnes has come into possession of a homebrew D&D campaign written by her departed sibling. Hoping to connect and gain some understanding of Tilly, Agnes enlists the aid of high school student Chuck to run the game as her Dungeon Master.

From here, the action plays out in two distinct worlds: Agnes’ day-to-day life at school and home – and the fantastical, dangerous land created by Tilly, where Agnes joins a coterie of scantily clad warrior women to quest for a missing soul.

Their journey sees them battle bugbears and beholders, deal with demons, and step up to a dance off with a duo of devilish cheerleaders; Daelyn Lester-Serafini and Anni Ramsay are a delight in the roles. Meanwhile, in the real world, Agnes finds herself struggling to connect with her fiancée Miles, leading to ample misunderstanding when he learns she’s been ‘role playing with a Dungeon Master.’

As she navigates real and make-believe worlds, Agnes gradually comes to better understand her lost sister – who exists within the game as the broadsword-wielding badass Tillius – and confront truths about the stories she tells her own self.

As Tilly/Tillius, Heidi Damayo is the beating heart of the play. Her performance is deeply earnest, managing to find authenticity in both high fantasy heroic antics and the insecurity of a teenage geek. She is also an athletic, acrobatic combatant, making fight director Mike Kovac’s wildly energetic, WWF-tinged choreography shine.

Her youthful ebullience is balanced by Natalie Backerman’s Agnes, whose initial condescension and uptight attitude gradually melt away, exposing a true-hearted hero.

The quirky framework of She Kills Monsters offers ample opportunity to go all out on design and this production never passes a chance to splash out with visually-stunning, tremendously imaginative effects.

Director Keltie Forsyth has brilliantly staged the work in a thrust configuration, with audiences wrapping around three sides of the giant, colourful polyhedrons that make up Alaia Halmer’s set. The space is gorgeously washed in gem tones and inspired projections by Stefan Zubovic, which conjure dragons, portals, and magical power-ups.

Costume designer Melicia Zaini must have had a field day garbing the world’s monsters and magicians. Puppet designer Nicolette Szabo takes this a step further, with the dragon Agnes battles at the play’s climax. It is one of the most spectacular effects to appear on Vancouver stages in recent memory (it should be no spoiler to say such a creature shows up in a play about Dungeons & Dragons).

The play is at its best in its quirky, quick-witted quips and epic battles. The script is not without its issues, however. We are never given a reason to feel strongly either way about Agnes’ boyfriend Miles, so the stakes feel low when she struggles on whether to stay with him. The narrative also is a bit missing in story arc; rather than developing, it feels at times as though we jump through a series of reveals about Tilly. The result is that the play can occasionally feel lacking in direction and focus.

Still, these elements do little to detract from what is a colourful, joyful, and undeniably fun evening of theatre. At its conclusion, the work reminds us that the stories we tell have the power to shape our internal and external worlds. While this particular story may not change your life, it will certainly put a smile on your face and an adventurous bit of light in your heart.

She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen. Directed by Keltie Forsyth. A Theatre at UBC production, on stage at the Telus Studio Theatre at the Chan Centre for  Performing Arts until  February 3. Visit for tickets and information.

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