The epic quest for epic theatre in Baltimore City has been going for as long as theatergoers have been seeking it out: since the dawn of theatrical time! The holy grail of theatrical mother-loads has landed at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre and it’s slaying— literally! She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen and Directed by Stephanie Miller, is exactly what thespians of Charm City have been seeking! Under-produced and rarely seen productions? Check. Productions with strong leading female characters? Check. Queer theatre? Check! Search no more (and complain no more that people aren’t doing that type of theatre in Baltimore) because She Kills Monsters has it all; it even has exciting design elements and exceptional performances too!
The set design is simplistic, minimal almost, but that doesn’t mean Resident Set Designer Alan Zemla and Floor Designer Sherrionne Brown don’t deserve a nod of praise— they do. Brown’s floor is the groundwork— metaphorically and literally— for the imaginative leap that both theatergoers and players of “Dungeons and Dragons” are required to take when taking this journey. With a great suspension of disbelief in play— this is a play all about undertaking an epic adventure into the realms of D&D adventures— the vividly colored floor is a +1 in design bonuses. Zemla’s set alongside Director Stephy Miller’s Sound Design, engages a great many imaginative portals for the audience’s mind, fully submerging them in the campy and entertaining reality of the production.
All hail the sorcereress of sartorial selections, the witch of wardrobes Lanoree Blake who truly makes magnificent magic happen for the costumes of this production. The duct-tape chainmail, the red-demon onesie and oh-so-frightening fuzzy Vorpal bunny slippers, the badass leather crop-top for Lilith Morningstar, and many, many more outfits featured over the course of the production are the result of Blake’s brilliance and bravado-level confidence in her costuming ability. The result is a fantasy realm come to life before the eyes of the audience, which is the perfect match for the storyline of Qui Nguyen’s work.
Nguyen’s work is clever; the play is smartly composed, wending fantasy into reality in a flawless fashion. Nguyen creates a striking balance between the hokey and campy nerd-and-dork culture of “Dungeons and Dragons” and the emotionally charged and heartfelt narrative of the underlying reality that occurs in the play. The play is suitable for audiences who have a comprehensive knowledge of D&D and those who have no knowledge whatsoever; it is enjoyable for anyone who enjoys a good story. Stephy Miller takes a quick hand to the pacing— much like a seasoned Dungeon Master would in running a module— and keeps the adventure running without encountering any bugbears. Part of what makes the show so impressive is the epic battles with the various bosses encountered along the way. Fight Choreographer Andrea Bush can be praised here with here Level39 defensive-imagination skills, making the fight scenes look slow-motion authentic, the sort you might imagine for nerds brawling in a basement during a fantastical game of “Dungeons and Dragons.”
The stereotype epitome of nerdtastic geek, Steve (Sam Cure) is an interrupting joke who keeps popping up at the precise moment of hilarity. Cure exudes nerdiness with flare when existing as lowly student Steve, meandering into Vera (Tina James) the guidance councilor’s office. Cure slouches and slumps and presents the character’s overall physicality as inwardly meek and exceptionally bookish. But marching forth with mage-infused courage when in the D&D modules, Cure takes the character in a full 360 spin-around, creating the earliest and most readily identifiable example of how the fantasy realm of D&D provides a much needed sense of escapism from real world problems.
Evil Gabbi (Zoe Lunga) and Evil Tina (Claire Iverson) are creepy, slutty demon cheerleaders; they’re basically everyone’s worst nightmare and to top it all off they’re technically succubae. Lunga and Iverson do a fantastic job of being the fantasy freaks we love to hate, making their villainy easy to loathe, even when they’re just regular Gabbi and Tina in reality. Miles (Peter Daly), the non-gelatinous cube version, is a compassionate performer, whose over-the-top overreactions to situations that he doesn’t understand are pricelessly aligned with all of the over overly dramatic interactions carefully composed into the script. But the melodramatic dynamic doesn’t cheapen the honesty of the emotional turmoil that unfurls as the plot goes on, not in general and not with Daly’s role in the plot’s progress. Orcus (Stephen Edwards) too falls into this menagerie of sidekick style characters that keeps the show rolling with entertainment. Edwards’ deadpan sense of humor is perfect for the lazy demon and he rocks the peculiar fashion sense that is outfitted to the character.
Narrating the story, Andrea Bush is the voice of all epic quests, journeys, and adventures, but more importantly, Andre Bush has a cameo appearance as one of the three major bosses to be battled along the way. Farrah, a badass faerie who is ready to kick adventurer ass, is writing with snark and sarcasm which Bush takes to the infinitely powered-up level of awesomeness. With a lit cigarette hanging from her lips when she starts battling the adventurers with her magical faerie staff, Bush defines badassery with not only her physicality but her sassy and sarcastic attitude. Lilith (Danielle Shorts) takes to the snarky sarcasm as well, though she’s a dominatrix in black leather and not a fiery faerie in pink. Ready to tackle the new-coming infiltrator (Agnes the Ass-hatted) and overtly powerful simply by the stance she gives her character when at rest, Shorts is seriously intense in her portrayal. Kaliope (Amanda Harris) rounds out the ‘party’ in the module and has a firm handle on the nuances of being an elf. Sarcasm and various other social cues— like emotions— are beyond the realm of elven necessity as they are evolved above that and Harris plays that chord of her character sublimely without making Kaliope robotic.
Not of the party, not from reality, the Dungeon Master may be the most crucial component to an adventure. In this production, that’s Chuck (Michael Crook) or DM Biggs so called because he’s big where it counts— his brain, of course— not because of his physical size. Crook is a hoot. Comically invested in the nerdtastic nuances of the character and cheeky when it comes to trying to play it cool with Agnes (Rachel Verhaaren) he is the epitome of how super geeky dungeon masters are perceived. Verhaaren takes a leap of faith playing Agnes— the outsider who desperately wants to know her sister Tilly (Lanoree Blake.) The chemistry that Verhaaren and Blake share is striking, though quite volatile at first. It’s the exchanges between these characters as the play goes on— each more emotionally heavy than the last— the builds the heart-touching and unexpected pathos of the play, giving it integrity and meaning beyond a laugh at Dungeons and Dragon culture. Verhaaren is deeply emotionally expressive while Blake keeps the character’s emotions reserved and withheld, driving the fascinating relationship that they experience as sisters across the time span of the performance. They share the burden of progress, both in the sense of the module being enacted and in the natural development of the device of the plot.
Ultimately rewarding, this fantastical adventure awaits those of you bold enough to take a chance on rarely produced queer theatre with strong female leads! Are you game? Roll the D20 and go!
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission
She Kills Monsters plays through June 18, 2017 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.