Rules of the game She Kills Monsters, a play by Qui Nguyen
Agnes Evans lost both of her parents and her younger si ster, Tilly, in a car crash. In the years since their deaths, she’s been living in her childhood home with t heir belongings, and teaching at her old high school among Tilly’s former classmates. But now Agnes’ boyfriend has asked her to move in with him, and she must clean out the house. In Tilly’s room she finds a notebook with information about Dungeons & Dragons, so she visits a role-playing game store and asks the kid at the counter, Chuck, to explain it to her. And that’s where Agnes’ adventure begins in She Kills Monsters, a play by Qui Nguyen, directed by Malcom Morgan, opening at the Santa Fe Playhouse on Friday, May 6.
The plot of She Kills Monsters is simple: In order to get to know her sister better, Agnes plays D&D with Chuck and a group of Tilly’s friends. Agnes discovers who Tilly — known as Tillius in the game — was, a girl with secrets and dreams, rather than the younger sister she took for granted. And she kills a few fictional monsters along the way. The play moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, often resting somewhere in between. The quick scene changes and vague stage direction of the script — for instance, “an elaborate and bad-ass fight ensues” — demand tremendous skill to lift the production out of potential chaos. Cheryl Odom, well known from her tenure at the Greer Garson Theatre at the College of Santa Fe and now Santa Fe University of Art and Design, is designing the costumes. Vaughn Irving, artistic director of the Santa Fe Playhouse, put his background in stage combat to use training the actors how to fight safely. Morgan said lighting, projected settings, and stage set-up are all key to making the movement between worlds understandable.
“There’s an interesting aspect to the theatricality of the show,” Irving said. “It reads on the page like a screenplay. Our main character will be in the real world having a conversation, then turn around and be in the game, and then turn back and be in the real world again. It can trick you, but in rehearsals, I’ve bought in without even having the lighting. It’s that magic of theater, that willful suspension of disbelief.”
Most of the actors are students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design,g, and many of them were already
The play moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, often resting somewhere in between.
avid D&D players. Morgan, who graduated from SFUAD in 2013 and now works in the school’s admissions office, actively sought students from campus to fill his cast of young characters. He had never played Dungeons & Dragons, but through the rehearsal process, he’s been initiated. He took photos and watched the cast play a game, and by the end he was itching to really participate. “It was like acting, but in a game — creating your own magic and monsters and just being really logical about things. The roll of the dice can change things in a heartbeat. While we were there, it didn’t seem like time passed. Three hours went by, and it felt like 30 minutes.”
Morgan held auditions for She Kills Monsters in the way he was taught at SFUAD. Instead of the Playhouse’s usual casual approach of having actors in an open call read pages from the play, he required everyone to come prepared with a headshot, résumé, and a short, comedic monologue already committed to memory. “I wanted to see what people look like when they think they’re polished. I would then give them a completely different direction and then have them do it again, to see their versatility. Can they take direction and run with it? I wanted to see that willingness.”
Sara Jackson, who plays Tilly, described her character as a fifteen-yearold closeted lesbian, very much into nerd culture. “Because of that, she gets bullied a lot at school. She has friends in the game, but I don’t think she would have made those friends without it. Tilly is dead in real life,” she added, “so it’s not clear that Tilly is Tilly, because Chuck plays Tilly, and that’s all in Agnes’ mind. And sometimes Tilly is Tillius.”
One character, Steve, played by Douglas Smith, is a mage in the game, and shows up several times only to immediately die. Smith, who considers Dungeons & Dragons one of the biggest parts of his life, brings an impressive authenticity to his role. “Steve is this stereotypically nerdy kid. He’s in marching band, really focused on college even though, I’m guessing, he’s a freshman. In the game his character is really flashy and out there. He wants to be known. I think that stems from being pushed to the background in real life. He rolls terribly though. He dies four times. I’ve been in multiple D&D games, and I’ve never seen rolls like that.” He went on to explain that for the most part, She Kills Monsters is realistic, but he thinks the “beholder” in the play’s game is killed too easily, based on the likelihood of two people needing to get very specific rolls of the dice. “Beholders — you run as fast as you can the other way. They are terrifying, hellish beasts.”
Like her character, Agnes, Joey Beth Gilbert had never played D&D, that is, until she started working on the play. She said that Agnes had been avoiding reality since her parents and sister died, but as the play begins, it is time for her to move on. “Once she has to face it, it’s all very raw, and that’s why emotions get so high between her and the other characters, who really knew Tilly.”
“Our protagonist is traveling through this world, discovering lots of things about Dungeons & Dragons along the way,” Irving said. “The reason from a dramaturgical perspective is because the audience doesn’t need to know what D&D is before they come to the theater. They can follow Agnes as she learns what the game is. It’s a beautiful story about family. It’s just told through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons and nerd culture. As a lifelong nerd, it really moves me. The fact that it also moves Malcom, who was not a lifelong nerd, is a great, telling thing about this play.”
The cast of She Kills Monsters: Megan Kelly, Joey Beth Gilbert, Julia Rocke, Douglas Smith, Niko’a Salas, Sara Jackson, Danette Sills, Dylan Salewski, and Devyn Williams; photo Lynn Roylance