“She Kills Monsters” Proves Good Theatre is Possible
April 12, 2021
When Broadway shut down one year ago, the future of theater became murky. Millikin’s SOTAD students were suddenly questioning what their careers could look like in a post-COVID world. As the pandemic raged on and theater shutdowns continued, the prognosis for theater wasn’t good.
But SOTAD’s most recent show, Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms,” proves that Millikin theater students will let nothing stop them from pursuing careers in the performing arts. On the contrary, they’ve shown themselves to be adaptable, resourceful, and incredibly strong performers. With all the odds stacked against them, they put on a damn good show.
“She Kills Monsters” follows the story of Agnes, a popular high school student, as she tries to understand her little sister Tilly one year after Tilly’s death. After finding a notebook where Tilly outlined a Dungeons and Dragons game, Agnes plays through the game and eventually realizes that it doubles as Tilly’s diary, where she documented her friendships, struggles with school bullies, and her relationship with the girl she loved.
Agnes has to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t really know Tilly and nothing will bring her back. But as the game progresses and Agnes meets the friends that Tilly played with, she starts to understand her sister and work through her grief.
Performed entirely through Zoom screens, one would expect a bit of a disconnect between actors, not to mention some distance between actors and audience. But the performers avoided this through their strong, emotional acting. Shifting from funny to serious with little notice, the play kept performers on their toes—and they delivered.
As Agnes, Courtney Klein shines as a disgruntled teen turned protective, kind older sister. Throughout the show, Klein keeps Agnes’s grief simmering beneath the surface until it erupts in the most poignant, genuinely heartbreaking moments of the play. Her acting is what makes this production as great as it is.
Playing opposite Klein is Ally Williams as Tilly. Tilly owns her “geek” status and challenges Agnes to commit and enjoy the game; Williams brings the humor with sarcastic comments and a wonderfully defiant, unabashed attitude.This makes the moments when Williams lets Tilly’s mask waver—when Evil Cheerleaders accuse her of being a lesbian, or when her girlfriend in the game is killed—all the more charged.
As Tilly, Williams nails home themes about being who you are and seeking out genuine friendships. Meanwhile, it’s through Klein’s acting that the show is able to make its bigger statement about grief, sisterhood, and finding yourself after tragedy.
Jared Scott plays Dungeon Master Chuck as funny, cautious, and a genuine friend to both Agnes and Tilly. The audience falls in love with him right away as he encourages Agnes to get to know Tilly but understand that the character in the game isn’t really her; nothing Agnes does will really connect her with Tilly like she wants. This is complex, and Scott balances it incredibly well, most notably in one of the most compassionate moments of the show when Chuck introduces Agnes to Tilly’s real-life friends, who the characters in the game are based on.
Amanda Handegan as Lilith/Lilly, Gavin King as Orcus/Ronnie, and Anais Morgan as Kaliope/Kelly are all delightful. As D&D characters, they’re strong and adventurous. In real life, each is a bit more dialed-back and facing their own challenges.
The way that the play is written runs the risk of creating two underdeveloped characters for each role rather than one well-rounded character. But these actors handled both sides of their roles with skill and impressive sensitivity to every facet of who they are, creating strong, interesting characters who the audience can easily root for.
Michael Santos as Agnes’s nice but clueless boyfriend and Ruth Zielke as her strong-willed best friend manage to be equal parts light-hearted and serious. They serve to support Agnes but, through Santos’s and Zielke’s strength as performers, also claim their own places and importance in this play.
Playing D&D demons and Tilly’s real-life bullies, Liz Atchley as Evil Tina and Emma Jean Lupp as Evil Gabbi are painfully cruel and wonderfully stupid, which is an impressive acting feat considering that Atchley and Lupp are neither of those things. Both skillfully handle their characters and make the eventual defeat of Tina and Gabbi all the more fun to watch.
And Owen Peterson as Steve, Brittney Huerta as Farrah the Faerie, and Greer Tornquist as the Narrator, while criminally underutilized, shone in their roles.
The crew also deserves a shoutout. Without their impressive staging and technological prowess, this show simply would not have worked. Playwright Qui Nguyen created the Virtual Realms version of “She Kills Monsters” in response to COVID-19, but it’s only because of the crew’s skill that this worked at all.
With all Millikin performances, it’s easy to forget that these are students onstage. They have professional-level acting chops, and they deserve credit both as theater students and theater professionals. While the entire theater community has struggled with how to adapt shows and portray characters in a virtual space, these students have handled it well.
It’s not hard to understand why SOTAD chose to produce this show for their Spring 2021 season. Premiering a week before the anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, the show asks us how to keep living when someone you love is gone. As Agnes processes her grief, everyone on the stage and in the audience is grieving along with her. We are all trying to answer the questions that the show raises, and one of the main themes of the show—that we should take time to connect with people we love while we can—has never been so poignant and applicable.
The pandemic might have changed how theater operates, but the cast and crew of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” have shown that theater is still possible—and really important.