The puppets come out about halfway through She Kills Monsters, University Theater’s second mainstage show this quarter. A cast of gawky high-schoolers, the quintessential band of unlikely protagonists, each make a witty quip, level their sparkling weapons, and completely demolish the worm-creature, the dragon-thing, and the bugbears.
It was like watching a video game come to life. While the play is mostly about love, familial relationships, and the process of grieving, it is also a reflection on how alternate realities, virtual or otherwise, have become so central to our culture. In addition to human drama, there were also epic fights with a five-headed dragon complete with escalating electronic music and swishing sword sound effects. Although its more substantial elements might have foundered a bit, the play was a wild romp.
College actors often struggle with depth, but here at the University of Chicago they excel when they’re delivering snarky quips, and the play was rife with them. It lightly taunting a standard Dungeons and Dragon (DnD) campaign: fake combat, a sense of superiority because you have a hoard of esoteric knowledge, and goofy, eccentric sarcasm. It was fun to see the exuberance expressed onstage, the nerds set free. The cast spent most of the show grinning, as did I.
The times when I wasn’t grinning, when the script attempted to be serious, were the weakest. It’s certainly easier to be witty for a breezy 70 minutes and then walk off the stage laughing. But delivering an emotional punch is challenging in its own right, and alternating between the two modes can be challenging. In the movement from funny to heavy, the script lost its footing somewhere in between.
Monsters brought the funny to life with grit, determination, and a show-stealing guidance counselor, but wasn’t able to deliver on its more emotional scenes. The story is centered around a distant older sister, Agnes (fourth-year Maggie Strahan), who is trying to get to know her recently deceased younger sister, Tilly (first-year Julianne Lorndale), through a DnD campaign that the younger sibling wrote. It attempts to recognize the challenges of managing grief, sexuality, and surprise—especially given that the younger sister was a closeted lesbian. But Monsters stumbles as it enters that challenging emotional territory. DnD as a metaphor for discovering the private life of a sister is fun, but Agnes’s growing investment in the fantasy world—to the point where she yells at her dungeon master to get in character as her sister—rings false. Wouldn’t Agnes be disheartened by how she is incapable of properly reconnecting with her sister, not convinced by what is obviously a fantasy?
The revelation that Tilly was gay was handled more carefully, unfolding into a classic story of hidden love, but it was framed within a setting that didn’t entirely make sense. At the heart of the show was one girl’s quest to learn more about her younger sister—but the latter was present on stage the whole time as her DnD character. It was challenging to feel the weight of Agnes’s loss when Tilly was never dead to the audience.
While She Kills Monsters really wasn’t a tear jerker, it was an interesting exploration of the interpersonal relationships between the “nerds” who play DnD. It was a commentary on Agnes, snide and disinterested in the game at first, realizing that maybe weird, geeky things aren’t so bad, and even kind of fun. She Kills Monsters couldn’t entirely deliver the crisis and resolution that it wanted to. But really, it didn’t need to. No, it didn’t always have substance, and no, it wasn’t always perfectly thought through, but it was 70 uninterrupted minutes of pure, goofy, fun. And that was enough for me.