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Wielding battle axes, swords and whips, actors attack in ‘She Kills Monsters’

  • Author: Tamara Ikenberg
  • Updated: September 28, 2017
  • Published September 28, 2017

A fight rehearsal for the play "She Kills Monsters" is about to start at Cyrano's new DeBarr Road venue, but a critical creature-slaying tool is missing. While fight coach Nick Lynch looks for it, assistant fight coach Rebecca Mahar rushes in.

"Do you happen to have a curved dagger?" Lynch asks her.

"Yes. I left it in my car," Mahar responds. She had taken the dagger home for repair.

Mahar turns right back toward the entrance to retrieve the weapon. It's a heavy, blunt, intimidatingly serrated steel dagger that's part of a gallery of realistic and fantasy weapons used in "Monsters." The fight-filled play is a plum project for the four-person fight team, made up of Mahar, Lynch, Dave Finke and fight director Frank Delaney.

"'She Kills Monsters' is set in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, so anything is game. You can do anything with weapons that you want," said Mahar, 27. "We have broad swords, a long curved Asian-looking sword, we have spears, we have something called a crozier, we have axes, we have a whip …"

A certified actor combatant with the Society of American Fight Directors, Mahar, who also has her own personal training business, is carving out a stage combat career. Since her days at UAA, she's been kicking butt and showing students how across Anchorage at places including Cyrano's, Anchorage Community Theatre and the 3 Barons Renaissance Fair. (Mahar isn't in "She Kills Monsters" because she's in the upcoming Glenn Massay Theater production of "Man of La Mancha," which overlaps.)

Throughout the two-hour fight rehearsal, Mahar and her fellow fight team members work almost as hard as the cast. After each fight scene, they swoop in with notes and demonstrations about angles, stances, how to avoid swinging into the audience, switch up a series of punches with a twirl, and more, until the cast takes another crack and everyone is scattered fake-dead on the floor.

Stage combat is far from gratuitous, haphazardly executed violence. It's a complex, choreographed art, requiring training, talent, strength and dedication.

And, as Mahar points out, stage combat is just another element of storytelling.

"When you do stage combat inside of a play, the story creates the fight. Being able to tell a story through physical violence is extremely cool," she said. "All of the techniques we use in stage combat are derived from martial technique and we modify to make them safe for stage use."

Greatest hits

First rule of stage combat: no contact hits to the head.

"That's your moneymaker," Mahar said. "That's your eight by 10."

But rules are made to be broken, as long as you don't break someone's nose.

And when Mahar starred as spitfire Amanda in "Private Lives" at Cyrano's earlier this year, she learned how to slap her rude lover Elyot's smug mug without causing damage.

"We did a really light-contact slap, and it came off beautifully every time … there are actual contact techniques you can use that are very seldom used," she said. "You have to target very carefully between the jawbone and the cheekbone. The hand has to be nice and loose and it's just a light sort of smack. You kind of have to have a limp wrist, fish hand to make it work."

Mahar said it worked so well because she and Delaney, who played Elyot, have been doing stage combat together for years and have a deep level of trust.

Under the direction of Delaney, Mahar became part of the fight show team at the 3 Barons Renaissance Fair in 2010. During one of this year's Battle Chess matches, she slung her 220-pound partner over her shoulders and carried him off the stage.

Now, she's co-captain of the team with her fellow "She Kills Monsters" fight team member Dave Finke. Lynch is also part of the Ren Fair fight posse.

"The four of us have worked together really well for a very long time," she said. "I'm the new kid on the block of our fight club."

Sword play?

Before she began hauling human chess pieces, Mahar's stage combat curiosity was piqued when the Dimond High School alum took a couple of workshops on the art in her sophomore year at UAA.

She was hooked almost immediately.

A broadsword, she explained, has a wide blade and base and is what you'd see a medieval knight wielding. A single sword is lighter than a fencing foil, and very flashy and whippy. It's a weapon Errol Flynn or Zorro would use for very stylized fighting.

And that's just the tip of the sword world.

There is also a small sword, which is a martial weapon that came before single sword, and rapier, which is the type of weapon used by the Three Musketeers or the Count of Monte Cristo.

"Small sword is all about thrusting and stabbing as quickly and as many times as possible, whereas a rapier is a long-edged weapon and it can both thrust and cut," she said. "Rapiers were often a lot longer than you see in movies, so you could keep the other person away from you, whereas with small sword you want to get in close and stab them."

Mahar takes cues and inspiration from movies both current and classic.

"I just watched 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' for the first time and that had some outstanding fights," she said. "In one of the fights the primary weapon was an umbrella. That was really cool."

Another favorite fight film is the 1956 movie "The Court Jester," starring Danny Kaye and world-class fencer Basil Rathbone. Mahar said it features single-sword fighting, and in one of the best scenes only the shadows of Rathbone and Kaye are seen sword fighting.

Mahar said one of the idols of stage combat artists is the late British fencer and fight choreographer Bob Anderson.

"He was the screen fencer," she said. "He was the man inside the Darth Vader suit in the original 'Star Wars' trilogy doing the light saber fights."

Mahar got to channel the legend while assistant-teaching a light saber fighting class with Delaney at the Aquarian Charter School.

"There is actually curriculum for learning how to fight with a light saber," she said. "All the moves they used were derived from martial technique or from single sword. There's technique behind all of it."

For the class the students and teachers used painted dowels referred to as "Padawan-training sabers."

Although faux-plunging a sword or saber into an opponent is fiercely satisfying, Mahar said that's not all there is to stage fighting.

"I really enjoy not even necessarily attacking all the time, but evading your opponent," she said. "… (B)eing fast enough to get out of the way and take someone by surprise."

‘She Kills Monsters’

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 15

Where: 3800 DeBarr Road

Tickets: $23-$25 at centertix.net

Note: Children under age 6 will not be admitted. The play is suitable for teens, but might be too intense for tweens.

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