The first Cyrano's show in the company's new digs is unlike anything you'll see this year, or maybe ever. "She Kills Monsters" is often screamingly funny, but it's not a comedy. At its heart the play is about love and loss, and our attempts to secure the former and survive the latter.
Set on a bare gray set with a backdrop painted as a stylized maze, the play takes place in the pre-digital '90s. Agnes Evans (Taylor R. Campbell) of Athens, Ohio, is superbly average: good student, pop-music fan, a nice girl who fits in. Her fiercely geeky younger sister Tilly (Jessica Faust) is a Dungeons and Dragons player who sticks out in their small town like a Goth at a cotillion.
When her parents and sister are killed in a car accident – this isn't a spoiler, since it happens in the first five minutes – Agnes is wracked with both grief and guilt. She remembers Tilly, six years her junior, as an adorable baby and a cute youngster. Yet their connection was lost when Tilly grew to become someone who "didn't live in the same world" as her hidebound sister.
After some time has passed, Agnes is clearing out the family home and finds a notebook containing an elaborate D&D module created by Tilly. In an attempt to understand her sister, Agnes decides to give the role-playing game a try with help from a teenage "dungeon master" named Chuck (Isaac Kumpula).
Nearly all of the play takes place in the D&D universe, where Agnes is completely at sea. Nothing in her average life prepared her for elves, dominatrix-styled warriors, a slacker demon or a hooded stranger who turns out to be … Tilly. Except that it isn't Tilly, because she's dead – yet she seems to be real.
Soon the game is bleeding into Agnes' real life as a high-school English teacher. Characters resemble colleagues and students – or is it the other way around? "Am I going crazy?" Agnes asks at one point. Maybe, maybe not – and we don't care, because the action is so drolly packed with arch humor and nerdy '90s references.
Much of the first act has a vibe of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" meets "Scooby-Doo," which could have come across as annoyingly nudge-wink. However, the energetic young cast pulls it off without a hint of self-consciousness. The 14 performers never lose their footing, even as they play multiple roles (hey, it takes five or six people just to operate one giant, multi-stick-puppet dragon). The timing is critical, and director Ryan Buen paces things perfectly.
It's all fun and games until someone gets bullied: The show takes a sharp, painful turn just before the end of the first act, with the appearance of a couple of succubi named Evil Gabbi (Sarah Bethany Baird) and Evil Tina (Boogie Willis). Dressed as cheerleaders and embodying the ultimate mean girls, the two gang up on the suddenly helpless Tilly. Explaining how and why would give away a crucial plot point; suffice it to say that this is 1990s Ohio, where to be different is to be in peril.
At one point, Tilly tells her sister that "D&D is not therapy." Yet Agnes seems to be using the module to work through the stages of grief, with "denial" and "anger" being the toughest ogres to slay. Like society, D&D has rules – and they don't always seem fair, or at least seem to be fairly applied.
The world works in ways that aren't expected, or kind. Sometimes the dragons win. Yet life goes on whether or not we're happy with the direction it takes. "She Kills Monsters" reminds us that the fear of change and the anguish of loss are both part of human existence.
Note: Children under age 6 will not be admitted. The play is suitable for teens, likely too intense for tweens and highly recommended for adults.
Donna Freedman, a former Anchorage Daily News reporter and reviewer, blogs at DonnaFreedman.com.
SHE KILLS MONSTERS continues through Oct. 15 at Cyrano's Theatre Company, 3800 DeBarr Road. Show times are 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 at centertix.net, and $23 for seniors and military personnel and students with ID. (907-263-2787)