Chicago Theater Review: SHE KILLS MONSTERS (Steppenwolf)

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by Samantha Nelson on March 15, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

NOT JUST FOR DUNGEONS & DRAGONS FANS

Early in She Kills Monsters, the play’s protagonist, Agnes (Katherine Banks), strikes up a conversation with Chuck (Richard Traub), a high school student working at a comic book store. There’s a glimpse of what this scene might look like in a lesser production that chose to just play to the worst stereotypes about nerds as the overweight Chuck swings around a toy light saber and gets incredibly flustered by talking to a girl.

Samantha Nelson's Stage and Cinema review of in Buzz22 Chicago's production of “She Kills Monsters” at Steppenwolf.

But this is a show about embracing nerd culture, not mocking it. Instead, Chuck becomes one of the play’s most endearing characters, managing the balance between awkward and forceful when he needs to be while overall showing the warmth and good nature so important to the play. Set in a small Ohio town in 1995, the show starts with decidedly average Agnes losing her parents and little sister in a car accident. In an attempt to get to know Tilly (Jessica London-Shields), who she never really understood in life, she asks Chuck to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that Tilly wrote. Soon she’s immersed in the fantasy world her sister created and populated with sexy demons, fairies with a taste for blood and menacing shape shifters.

Samantha Nelson's Stage and Cinema review of in Buzz22 Chicago's production of “She Kills Monsters” at Steppenwolf.

Artistic directors Sara Sawicki and Scott Weinstein manage to balance spectacle and sensitivity, provoking both riotous laughter and somber silences. Puppetry designer Colleen Werle produced some spectacular monsters for Agnes, Tilly and their fellow adventurers to battle and Rachel Goldberg’s costumes also shine as she’s crafted creatures that will be instantly recognizable to Dungeons & Dragons fans along with scant garb for her heroines that’s meant to be mocked. This is a show that utilizes both a fight director (Chuck Coyl) and a dance choreographer (Lori Buchanan) to great effect, setting the movement to a mix of ’90s pop rock and instrumental music that would be at home in the Lord of the Rings films.

Samantha Nelson's Stage and Cinema review of in Buzz22 Chicago's production of “She Kills Monsters” at Steppenwolf.

But all of that spectacle could still fall flat if it wasn’t for the excellent performances. Banks shows a great range as the outsider exploring her sister’s world, who slowly gets seriously invested in the game and struggles with the truths about Tilly it reveals. Morgan Maher provides some high comedy as the TV-obsessed slacker demon lord Orcus and Allie Long and Ellie Reed are beautifully two-faced as a pair of cheerleaders that were such terrible antagonists to Tilly in the real world that she paints them as nearly unbeatable foes in her game, their laughter wounding deeper than any weapon blow could.

Samantha Nelson's Stage and Cinema review of in Buzz22 Chicago's production of “She Kills Monsters” at Steppenwolf.

My biggest problems with this show were that Tiamat’s five heads were all one color and that paladins can’t cast magic missiles. But that’s just because I am a huge Dungeons & Dragons nerd myself. I play for all the same reasons the characters say they do: it’s awesome and offers a bit of wish fulfillment which is particularly valuable for a troubled teenager or anyone dealing with grief. Shows and movies have traditionally been cruel to this game and the people who play it, but She Kills Monsters offers a deep and beautiful understanding of both. While it might have the most impact for those who have played, it’s also a great way to follow in Agnes’ footsteps and discover a new, fantastical world.

Samantha Nelson's Stage and Cinema review of in Buzz22 Chicago's production of “She Kills Monsters” at Steppenwolf.

photos by Michael Brosilow

She Kills Monsters
Buzz22 Chicago at Steppenwolf
part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep Season
scheduled to end on April 21. 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.steppenwolf.org/

click here for Stage and Cinema’s Off-Broadway review of She Kills Monsters at the Flea Theater

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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