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UCI’s “She Kills Monsters” Delights with Dungeons and (Digital) Dragons

For the past nine months, a healthy dose of escapism has seemed like a prescription that would benefit anyone. The UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ production of “She Kills Monsters” comes at a perfect time, honing in on that specific need to escape from your real life where the only monsters to fight are the ones you can defeat with magic or a mighty sword. 

Directed by Beth Lopes, this production follows the “Young Adventurers Edition” of the play — an aged-down, less explicit version of the original work by Qui Nguyen. The production takes the audience, along with its main character Agnes (Tolu Ekisola), on a journey in a foreign land by way of a Dungeons & Dragons game. Agnes is your run-of-the-mill, average high school senior who wishes her nerdy, younger sister Tilly (Kasey Black) was less weird. Unfortunately, her wish is granted with genie-esque accuracy when Tilly is struck by a car and killed. A year after the incident, Agnes finds a Dungeons & Dragons module written by her sister and enlists the help of a Dungeon Master named Chuck (Gio Munguia). In this time, Chuck tries to posthumously learn about and reconcile Agnes’ distant relationship with her sister. 

Ekisola, a second year M.F.A. acting student, puts up a hard outer shell around Agnes that covers an unspoken but familiar fragility. Moments like where she learns about Tilly’s sexuality, wide-eyed and stuttering, Ekisola reveals Agnes’ naivety and even insensitivity. Airheadedness follows in her subsequent interaction with Lily (Emma Marie Montoya), who is the real-life counterpart to Lilith but the demon queen in Tilly’s module. As Agnes excitedly interrogates Lily while completely missing her visible discomfort, it is through expressive eyes and hand movement that Ekisola displays Agnes’ flaws with intention and sincerity. These all-too-real moments reiterate how distant she was not only from Tilly but also from reality as a whole. Although Agnes is introduced as being “average” in everything, the visible willingness and, at some points, desperation that Ekisola injects into her character firmy establishes her connection with the audience.

In UCI’s production, the topic of establishing connections is one that can’t be ignored.  Whether it be actor-actor connections or actor-audience connections, this performance created an engaging environment similar to that of live theater despite being confined by computer screens.  

With green screens behind each actor in their own individual homes, backgrounds are quickly and easily switched between the fantasy world of Tilly’s notebook and characters’ “real life” bedrooms. Their journey across the Swamps of Mushy and Mountains of Steepness iseach able to have their own background without the hustle and bustle of moving stage props. Unlike a performance done on a single stage, the tech department — led by Bruce Warner — is granted much more control over what is seen and what is not. Being able to switch from one actor’s camera to another and the ability to add transitions allows  the audience to only see what they need to see. The sound design by Joshua Price becomes an integral part of the storytelling; sound effects and music accompanying fight scenes coax the audience deeper into the magical new world.  Comic book-like graphic cards designed by art co-directors Merle DeWitt III and Nita Mendoza make for fun transitions and add an extra flare to battle scenes.

The production’s final fight scene between Agnes and the five-headed dragon Tiamat is a gorgeous display of the tech and art departments’ creativity. Seven different actors’ cameras take up the screen; Agnes at the center and Chuck rolling the dice to the side as five dragon heads swivel around on five separate cameras below. Each of the dragon heads is a digitally drawn filter on a different actor. As Agnes defeats each dragon one by one, one less camera is shown on screen, a feat that feels almost interactive with every roll of the dice.

Luckily enough for the cast and costume staff (Julie Keen-Leavenworth, Teresa Marchand and Yen Le Trang), the play doesn’t call for over the top costuming. In fact, using what is already in their closets adds a metaness and authenticity to their performances. Paralleling the characters they’re playing, they are using what they have to transform into somebody else. Real life calls for normal clothes; a beanie and sweater for Agnes, a plain black hoodie for Chuck and a simple striped shirt for Steve (Jason Ta). When in the fantasy world or New Landia, an oversized robe for Orcus rings perfect when his counterpart is the laid-back and relaxed Ronnie (Jared Serpa).  Fun and quirky filters, such as elf ears, demon horns and fairy wings, are used to add in the rest of the little details that complete the minimalist but effective wardrobe. 

Although the Tilly we see on screen is a projection created by Agnes’ mind and Chuck’s narration, Black makes sure that Tilly is still a character with a life of her own. Black uses a deepened voice and stoic stance to portray Tilly as her in-game character Tillius leads the cast of characters on their journey. However, after Tillius’ encounter with the succubus, Black’s choice to have Tillius hyperventilate and have a small outburst reminds the audience that Tillius is in reality just Tilly, a scared 15-year-old girl.

Despite being unable to rehearse together in a physical space, the relationships formed between their characters feel like they’ve worked together for more than just a few months over screens. 

Filled with monsters of fiction and reality alike, UCI’s production of “She Kills Monsters” is a relevant, exciting and hopeful adventure that proves that an online performance can lead to heartfelt and palpable connections, even when you’re relying on the Wi-Fi connection to stay stable.

Hilary Gil is an Entertainment Intern for the fall 2020 quarter. She can be reached at hsgil@uci.edu.