“Dungeons & Dragons” is a game most fantasy-lovers are familiar with. The game — popular in both video- and board-game formats — offers a role-playing fantasy synonymous with nerd-dom. But even the most experienced “Dungeons & Dragons” player probably hasn’t seen it portrayed on the stage.
In the dramatic comedy stage production “She Kills Monsters,” the world of “Dungeons & Dragons” is taken on through a seamless interspersing of the main character Agnes Evans’ real life with events of fantasy. The play is the newest production by University of Pittsburgh Stages.
The drama begins when Agnes finds her sister Tilly Evans’ “Dungeons & Dragons” notebook and begrudgingly plays along, killing monsters and exploring the detailed world her sister dreamed up in an attempt to learn more about her.
The role-playing, however, soon seems increasingly real, with her actions leading to real-life consequences. What begins as curiosity turns into a poignant quest to understand parts of her sister she had previously ignored. Agnes discovers more about her sibling than she could’ve imagined, eventually feeling like she might not have really known her at all.
Pitt’s production of “She Kills Monsters” runs from Oct. 4 through Oct. 14 at the Charity Randall Theatre with performances on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Auditions for the show took place last semester and rehearsals started on the second day of school while the rest of the student body was still finding their bearings in the new semester. The actors rehearsed from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
Peri Walker, a senior majoring in English literature and theater arts who plays Agnes, said that preparing for the show was a tough process due to the amount of stage-fighting scenes. The “Dungeons & Dragons” setting provides for a large amount of fantasy fights that go along with the adventure.
“[This show] was a little bit different than other rehearsal processes I’ve been a part of in the past, just because the fights are such a big part of the show,” she said. “It’s definitely a very physical show.”
Walker, a self-proclaimed nerd, stated what drew her to “She Kills Monsters” was she saw a lot of herself in Agnes.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate sisterhood throughout the process because [my character thinks] those relationships are really important,” she said.
Ariana Starkman, a junior studying theater and social change through Pitt’s interdisciplinary studies program, plays Tilly. She experienced the preparations a little differently as she was also the fight captain, a role that involved her managing the stage fighting.
“My background, besides being an actor, is stage combat. That was a huge part of my background, which then I could bring into the rehearsal room, helping our choreographer choreograph and think up fights,” Starkman said.
This aspect of stage combat hasn’t been seen in many of the shows Pitt Stages has done recently, like “Our Town” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“There’s so many shows out there that have only a few elements of stage combat, whether it be a push or a slap, but we don’t ever get to have a full-fledged fight,” she said. “And the fact that there are women doing all of the fights is just an amazing opportunity for us. It’s definitely a huge play in the Pitt community because of it.”
Written in 2011 by Qui Nguyen, “She Kills Monsters” takes place in 1995, making some of the language and themes somewhat dated. However, the characters and problems are incredibly real and work together with the mystical setting of “Dungeons & Dragons.” The fantasy may not be real, but the setbacks and trials the characters encounter are.
The costumes and weapons in Pitt Stages’ production are elaborate, with careful attention to detail in design and the materials used. Designs for costumes are reminiscent of traditional fantasy and gaming tropes. Spotlighting on characters creates the illusion that they’re pieces on a board game. The most impressive prop is likely the large five-headed dragon with glowing eyes in the final boss fight during the climax of the play.
Bonnie Klopfer, a senior majoring in industrial engineering and theater arts, plays the character Kaliope in the production. While she is excited about the success of production so far, she also spoke about what the show really means to people. To her, the most important message this play sends is one of inclusiveness.
“Inclusivity and understanding are essentially what fuels connection, and connection is what fuels, I think, inner peace — that there’s always more beneath the surface, and everybody’s journey is equal in value,” Klopfer said.
The stage manager of the production, Sarah Sokolowski — a senior majoring in theater arts — expressed a similar view to Klopfer’s. Sokolowski cited female empowerment as the most important message of the show.
“In a lot of the nerdy, geeky, gamer worlds, it’s always the men that are highlighted, and we don’t see that side as much with women,” she said.
While it is a funny and entertaining production, “She Kills Monsters” seems to resonate with its audience, cast and crew through its exciting narrative, social commentary and women’s representation — something Sokolowski was excited about.
“I think it’s really important to see that girls can be geeks too and be badass, and fight and kill monsters,” she said.