OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Shape shifting. Time traveling. Fantasy gaming. Swordplay. Wordplay. Revelation. Guilt. Sexuality. Adventure. Humor.
As proof that plays can take you anyplace, all those are just some of what’s in “She Kills Monsters.”
The intricate, wild-eyed romp is running for five more large-scale performances on the wide stage of the Theatre Arts Center at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Imagination is all around.
“She Kills Monsters” leaps off the beaten path into a “Dungeons & Dragons”-like fantasy, along with a loosey-goosey approach to a story.
Youthfulness is at the steering wheel.
The staging and costuming are akin to entering a haunted house attraction with lots of ghoulies and ghosts, with swordplay and fake dying added.
A crazy-quilt of comedy is built into some serious matters of soul searching: Tilly has died young, while still a teenager. Now her guilt-ridden older sister, Agnes, aims to discover what her little sister was about through Tilly’s diary, which details adventures that Tilly wrote and drew.
In the mix of theater-making are images of large maps of a fantasy world, banks of fog, multiple blackouts, bursts of swinging weaponry and splashes of color lighting.
“She Kills Monsters” is a take on tabletop fantasy role-playing games and animated film – except that it’s live theater. Make-believe is everywhere.
Included in the ideas of the heavy-duty concept premise and some of the jargon of the fantasy game world are:
+ A living person can discover the character of a dead person whose traits, and being, live on through a game story that the dead person created.
+ The persons are the sisters whose home in 1995 is in Athens, Ohio. Tilly Evans (Jena Plutz) has been killed in a road crash. While sorting through Tilly’s worldly belongings, Tilly’s older sister, Agnes Evans (Sydney Pomrening), has discovered a game scenario that Tilly created. Agnes, through a “dungeon master,” Chuck (Max Benitz), becomes a character in Tilly’s fantasy scenario to discover things about Tilly, who she ignored in life.
+ Tilly’s character in the fantasy game kills monsters. Agnes fights monsters in a different sense – that she didn’t try to understand or know Tilly in life, and now monsters haunt her in her conscience.
+ Many of the characters have a glib, youthful, know-all wise-ness. With-it humor bubbles through the action.
+ Much differentness bubbles through the action. Tilly of the game is a somewhat invincible woman warrior. Her compatriots, Lilith Morningstar (Sami Markle) and Kaliope Darkwalker (Alyssa Wodack), are gifted with specialty warrior skills. Each is a threat to any foes/challengers that Tilly – and now Agnes – encounter as they venture to, perhaps, some sort of truth.
Agnes of the game is a learner, and thus she bungles through with some feeble help from the “guiding” Chuck. Agnes of life is a high school teacher with a boyfriend, Miles (Aaron Stone), who has avoided pressing the “Commit” button with Agnes. Amid all the fantasy and real challenges, playwright Qui Nguyen adds this twist: Tilly is gay, and so are her compatriots. Some of the violence in the fantasy game becomes about that. The play has strong vibes on the topic.
Some other differentness:
++ The bizarre costuming of the gaming world, from warrior woman/gladiator style to a fabric impression of glob of a gelatinous foe.
++ Characters materialize at will in the fantasy world, just like ones that pop up out of nowhere in video games – or that show up ringing your doorbell at Halloween.
++ In real life, Agnes comes to recognize a few people who Tilly fictionalized and included in her made-up game.
++ Combat abounds. The “Dungeons & Dragons”-like games are mostly about confrontation and deadly victories or defeats. So there’s battling galore (with safe swords), and the show has a fight choreographer.
++ Humor is weird style. Sample character: Steve (Isaac Davis). In real life, Steve keeps getting blown off by others. In the fantasy world, he keeps turning up as gung-ho characters who keep getting killed. While the player doesn’t die a thousand deaths, he dies a lot along the way, usually with comically over-dramatic finality.
++ A key scene is a “dance battle,” so now key characters switch into a mod dance mode.
++ At the climax, Agnes faces off against the deadly holder of her sister’s soul, in this case a true monster of a prop. This creature – a one-of-a-kind creation – has five heads on long necks, eyes that light and a dragon-like body. When it arrives in a bank of fog, it looks scarifying.
Theater takes you to places you ordinarily couldn’t go. “She Kills Monsters” definitely does that. It is full-tilt imagination.
Director Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft, the creative corps and the players let their imaginations fly, sweeping the audience into a cosmic neverland.
Most of the acting is over the top with the players getting into the spirit.
While the acting is often geared to other-worldly characters, Sydney Pomrening and Jena Plutz excellently deliver meaningful dramatic material as Agnes rises to realizations and comes to terms with the often-rebuking Tilly.
The cast embraces the differentness that include Drake Hansen as the slacker master of the underworld – with ram horns and a skeleton head codpiece – who has traded Tilly’s soul for a TV/VCR combo and Maddy Ebben and Alyssa Proell as (among other characters) costumed evil personas who seem to take forceful pleasure in being nasty/threatening.
There’s never a dull moment in “She Kills Monsters.” Bewildering and baffling, yes, but not dull in this ambitious production.
Added background on the story, the playwright, the history of the play and Dungeons and Dragons is told in four displays in hallways adjacent to the theater. This dramaturgy is a tradition for UW-Oshkosh Theatre and unique among the region’s theaters.
Running time: One hour, 28 minutes (with no intermission)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 29-30, May 6-7 and 2 p.m. May 8
Note: Masks recommended
Creative: Playwright: Qui Nguyen; director – Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft; costume designer – Zane Kealey; assistant costume designer – Ali Basham; lighting and sound designer – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; technical director – Mark Spitzer; production stage manager – Shayne Steffen; fight director – Merlaine Angwall; student fight captain – Max Bentiz, Drake Hansen, Alyssa Wodack; props – Leeann Hershey
Agnes Evans – Sydney Pomrening
Tilly Evans (Agnes’ younger sister) – Jena Plutz
Chuck (DM) – Max Benitz
Miles (Agnes’ boyfriend), Bugbear – Aaron Stone
Kaliope/Kelly – Alyssa Wodack
Lilith/Lily – Sami Markle
Vera/Evil Gabbi/The Beholder/Spikey Monster – Maddy Ebben
Evil Tina/Farrah the Faerie/Spikey Monster – Alyssa Proell
Orcus/Ronnie – Drake Hansen
Steve the Adventurer (Steve the Student), Bugbear – Isaac Davis
Narrator/Spikey Monster/Bugbear – Drew Schlimgen
THE VENUE: The 498-seat Theatre Arts Center, formerly Fredric March Theatre, includes a traditional proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage, which is especially wide. Leg room is abundant. The acoustics are crisp for the spoken voice in plays.