Dungeons and Dragons: the original video game, the origin of now-ubiquitous gaming concepts like hit points, and the quintessential hobby of nerds everywhere.
I’ll admit, I’ve played a few games myself. I enjoyed it greatly, but I didn’t really click with the people I was playing with. Agnes, protagonist of The Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s latest production, She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, has far more interesting and complicated company than I did: she uses a notebook containing a D&D adventure written by her deceased teenage sister, Tilly, to try to understand her better and get to know in death the sister she barely knew in life.
Agnes is totally new to Dungeons and Dragons, which offers a way in for audience members unfamiliar with the game, as high school student Chuck (played with magnificent geekiness and spot-on comedic timing by Matthew Torres) guides her through the basics of the game while serving as her Dungeon Master (the very kinky-sounding title of the person who oversees and manages a game of D&D, a title which leads to comedic misunderstanding throughout the show).
The rest of Agnes’ adventuring party is filled out by her sister Tilly (aka Tillius the Paladin), the sexy and violent warrior Lilith, the magical dark elf Kaliope, and the powerful demon lord Orcus, who’s more interested in Friends marathons than reaping lost souls. Together, they embark on an epic quest to save the Lost Soul of Athens and defeat the dragon Tiamat, a journey that intertwines with Agnes’ real life experiences as she unravels secrets about her sister’s life. All these events are stitched together by the hilarious narrator, played by Madeline Bernhard, who remains committed at all times to maintaining her British high fantasy persona even when speaking such absurd phrases as “Agnes the Asshatted.”
Just as Dungeons and Dragons itself involves collectively creating elaborate fantasy worlds with nothing more than words, dice, paper, and maybe some props, the design team of She Kills Monsters creates a convincing fantasy universe with only a few elements. The set is fairly simple, but fabulous costumes by Joan Pritchard, colorful lighting by Michael Joseph, and rich sound design by Marc James successfully bring the audience into the universe of the game. The execution of the five-headed dragon at the end of the show, designed by Bart O’Toole, is nothing short of fabulous.
Nguyen’s script is beautiful, peppered with feminism, queer representation, 90s pop culture references, and jokes on jokes on jokes. But underneath all the fun fantasy elements is a raw, beating heart: a relationship between sisters that is realistically messy and complicated but ultimately one-sided, a way of coping with grief rather than a true form of communication.
She Kills Monsters is a gut punch, a mug of hot chocolate, a badass action movie, and a good cry. You don’t have to love D&D to love what this wonderful show has to offer.
Location: Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60618
Dates: March 16 – April 21, 2018
Times: Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm.
Please note: There will be no show on Sunday, April 1. There will be additional performances on Saturday, March 31 at 3pm and Thursday, April 19 at 8pm.
Tickets: $30. Available by calling 312-882-8201 or at The Cuckoo’s Theater Project website. Arts Access Tickets available at each performance.
All photos by Candice Lee Conner.