To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘She Kills Monsters’ tackles life and death in a profound storyline

Monsters lurked behind the curtains of the SCC Theater last weekend during Brandeis Ensemble Theater’s production of Qui Nguyen’s play, “She Kills Monsters,” directed by Rachel Josselsohn ’17. But although we meet monsters aplenty, and indeed they are often killed by a “she,” to characterize Nguyen’s reality-meets-fantasy play as simply a tale of violence and death would be to turn a blind eye to the fragile moments of vulnerability, great expressions of love and difficult scenes of pain within the narrative.

The premise and characters are immediately established by narration (performed by Sivan Spector ’18) at the beginning of the production, where we meet the main characters and fiery sister duo of “She Kills Monsters”: Agnes (Joanna Murphy ’17) and Tilly Evans (Jessie Kinsley ’20). Perhaps a bit unfairly, Agnes is introduced as the average, completely normal older sister of Tilly, an exuberant Dungeons & Dragons fanatic. While Tilly seems to be satisfied with her life, aside from some friction with her sister over a difference in interests, Agnes wants anything but her run-of-the-mill existence, and she gets it: Her entire family passes away in a tragic car accident, leaving her a sisterless orphan.

Although she begins to heal after the loss, Agnes longs to know the sister whom she wasn’t able to spend adequate time with before her death. Her wish is fulfilled when she comes across a notebook of Tilly’s with a Dungeons & Dragon scenario written in it, and Agnes brings it to Chuck (Zack Garrity ’20) to explore her sister’s life through her passion. Little does Agnes know, the adventure she is about to embark upon will inflict both physical and emotional pain on her, her sister and those around them. This is a story in which everyone loses someone or something, but also gains a deeper knowledge and understanding of life and one another.

What’s so wonderfully unique about “She Kills Monsters” are the parallels that it draws between reality and the non-real world of Tilly’s imagined D&D landscape. There are moments of both intense action and thoughtful dialogues within the fantasy realm and Agnes’ real-life environment, and through both of these worlds we observe Agnes learn, understand and move forward with all that she’s discovered about her sister’s life. The process is chaotic and messy at times for Agnes, and there are moments where we cheer for her and there are moments where we shake our heads in disappointment at her. But just like Agnes, there’s something we can all take away from “She Kills Monsters.” Hannah Taylor ’19, who played a monster in the show, shared that, in particular, she resonated with the show’s message “to love people and love things and appreciate them in the here and now.”

There are a lot of strong characters in this play, especially strong women. It’s the women who slay the monsters in the D&D world: throwing punches at their enemies, snapping necks and thrusting swords into those who try to stop them (thanks to superb fighting choreography by Andrew Hyde ’17). But even though these women are only weapon-brandishing warriors in the realm of D&D, the obstacles they must overcome and the strength they display rival that of their imagined characters.

On the other hand, this was a show in which the characters really shine in their weaknesses. Some of the best acting in play was showcased in tender moments of vulnerability, like when Agnes comforts Tilly after she’s harassed for being a lesbian, or when Tilly grieves the loss of her girlfriend, Lilith Morningstar (Rachel Greene ’20). It’s rare to find a show that balances this kind of duality in its characters as well as “She Kills Monsters,” especially in a way that doesn’t cater to overemotional stereotypes of women.

Although death is treated with an aloofness that’s informed by its sensitive and uncomfortable nature, Josselsohn was clear in her direction that the play isn’t about death. Instead, it’s about living the life that you deserve to live despite what others say, to live it through following your passions and surrounding yourself with people who share your passions.

Elana Kellner ’19, the assistant director for the show, explained that although the show promotes a multitude of themes, she concluded that “in the end, you should really be enjoying what you do.” And according to a touching line by Tilly, it would seem that is truly the overarching message of “She Kills Monsters”: “Did you have fun? That’s the point in all this. Did you have fun?”

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