Since writing the Season 44 preview, I have been intrigued and excited by the upcoming play, She Kills Monsters. While it does fit the season’s apparent theme of “family drama”, it does move away slightly by killing off the parents and sister before the show begins. It also fits in more with the subtheme of featuring more plays with female and diverse roles, which is what really hooked me. Okay, and the 90s-era high school setting with monsters as metaphor didn’t hurt either.
College graduate Agnes has been living in her hometown of Athens, Ohio when her family is killed in a car crash. Years later, as she prepares to sell the family house, she finds herself wishing that she had been closer to her high school-aged sister, Tilly. As she goes through the family’s things, and as a teacher at the high school that both girls had attended, Agnes reaches for more and more details about her sister’s life, until she ends up in a D&D campaign with Tilly’s old dungeonmaster. By traveling through this very personal adventure, Agnes learns more about Tilly than she could have imagined.
Curious as to how these details would translate onto the stage, I inquired of director Mikel Matthews, who was very happy to help me work some of this out.
Smile Politely: Every synopsis and review I’ve read of this play says “monstrous fun with 90s wit and videogame-style battles”, which reads to me like Scott Pilgrim ditched Ramona and had a baby with Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead. (Hence my excitement) So, in your opinion, who writes better dialogue (and why): Qui Ngyuen, Bryan Lee O’Malley, or Joss Whedon?
Mikel Matthews: Well, Whedon is a master. Qui Ngyuen doesn’t do the ‘meta’ thing in the same way that O’Malley and Whedon do. There is one battle in the show that, while it runs the way a D&D battle runs, is probably almost always done in the style of a Final Fantasy fight. The others are real-time battles instead of a turn-based fight.
SP: Truthfully, better dialogue does not an entire play make, so tell me your favorite thing about the journey Agnes takes throughout the course of her belated attempt to learn more about her sister.
Matthews: The thing that got me excited about this play wasn’t the Dungeons and Dragons part, though that was an interesting hook. (Not a spoiler since we find it out in the very beginning of the show) Agnes lost her entire family when she graduated from High School. Now, at 25, she’s looking to be moving out of her family’s home and discovers that not only has she not processed the death of her younger sister, Tilly, she discovers how much she didn’t know about her.
The show is very funny but it has a great heart to it and there’s an emotional journey in it with weight.
SP: Some theatres have opted for very creative staging, costumes, and even puppets to flesh out the imaginary D&D world portrayed in the script. In what ways has this production opted to decorate the people and things inhabiting the quest?
Matthews: I’ve enrolled several members of the Ginger Sweatshop, which was our name for several of the costumers and builders who I work with in Carnival Debauche, a burelsque troupe I emcee for. We’ve also pulled in some other people for some puppets and costumes to help build the characters. We don’t have a massive budget but the nice thing about theatre is that it’s suggestive.
SP: You’ve directed a number of rock musicals in the recent past (RENT, Chess, Evil Dead), and She Kills Monsters has been described as having a “punk sensibility” although there is a distinct lack of singing. What ways do you feel your musical experience fed into this production? Did it help or hinder? Be honest, did you ever ask the gelatinous flesh-eating cube to hum a few bars?
Matthews: That’s a strange way of describing it. Several shows I’ve directed (and one I’ll be directing soon) do very much have that kind of mentality but I wouldn’t call that true for SKM. It’s closer, in many ways, to a good 80s comedy. It’s funny and that comes from the characters and the strange situations they end up in but it doesn’t neglect to have a compelling human story at its center.
SP: youtube tells me that you have a lot of ideas about the experiences your cast should have in order to find the truth in their art. I’m guessing you learned from experience and didn’t request anyone to actually try to find an orc to battle, or a dragon skin to inhabit, but did you all sit down and play a D&D campaign? How’d that go over? In case the answer to this is “NO”, just tell me your favorite cast story, then.
Matthews: I answered a lot of questions about D&D and roleplaying in general, but I haven’t made them go through a game. I’m actually planning on running a game with some of the cast when the house opens each night so the audience will get a chance to see what a game looks like.
The cast themselves are wonderful. I looked over at one point, on the second rehearsal, and figured they had known each other for a long time. They bonded incredibly quickly and it’s a joy to work with a cast who genuinely likes each other. (Not that it’s rare. A lot of casts get along but aren’t necessarily social.)
We rehearse at our lead’s house and she has two dogs. The dogs like to sit next to someone in really emotional scenes and wait to see if they’re going to be okay. They also will come over to lick and give love to people who end up on the floor, which happens at several points in the fight scenes.
You can fool people emotionally, but dogs know. It’s actually kind of a good barometer for how real the emotion in a scene is playing.
SP:I have a vague understanding of the way the Station drafts its season…did you propose this particular show, or were you offered the chance to direct it based on your prior experiences?
Matthews: For most of [the plays], I’ll submit something and I’ll generally do a back and forth with [the board] about scripts until we’ve decided on something. This and Evil Dead are the only ones I’ve submitted that I’ve done, though Chess was in a group of possibilities I had put in a few years before I did it.
SP: This play deals with some very heavy subjects and themes, but uses some highly whimsical metaphor to do so. I’d hate for an audience to dismiss this work as frivolous just based on its appearance, so pretend I am a serious theatre patron and tell me why I should come see a young lady battle cheerleaders with batwings.
Matthews: I’ve done some very enjoyable fluff in the past but the shows that really draw me are the ones that pull all the strings. The ones that make you laugh and cry. The ending of this show reminds me, to a huge degree, of the end of Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead by Burt V. Royal, which is about the Peanuts gang grown up and incredibly screwed up. It had some faults in it but the ending was, I thought, sublime and beautifully tragic.
At its heart, this is a story about the discovery of a person Agnes never really knew and how that grief, which has been mostly buried for years, is finally able to be unearthed. The fantasy and comedic elements are the delicious chocolate shell that gets you to the meat at the heart of the play. Except I don’t think we’d like chocolate covered meat. It’s a metaphor and, therefore, I’ll switch them around as I see fit.
SP: Chocolate-covered bacon is a thing. A delicious, delicious thing. Any parting words? What else should a potential audience know before coming to see the show?
Matthews: One of the things that makes me excited about this play is that I believe it may bring in an audience (such as Evil Dead and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson did) that aren’t used to seeing live theatre. The D&D theme of it will be the draw that, with luck, turns someone on to just how wonderful and intimate this art form is. Theatres are seeing declining attendance because there are companies around the world who are advertising for an audience who aren’t going to be around much longer and using work that doesn’t appeal to the newer, younger audiences who wouldn’t normally think of going to see a show. I like that we make efforts at the Station to bring in new audiences without feeling like we have to dumb down the kind of shows we pick. We can respect their interests and their intelligence.
Is She Kills Monsters a good 80s sitcom? The love-child of two witty 90s pop-culture heroes? Is it yet another permutation of the joy-inducing plot to get everyone to eat more bacon? Or is it (as I suspect) a devious ploy to pack the seats with whippersnappers and trick them into an evening filled with meaning and introspection?
Tune in later this week! She Kills Monsters shows at the Station Theatre February 18th-March 5th at 8 p.m. for $10 on weekdays and $15 on weekends. Tickets are available online or by calling 217-384-4000.
About Rebecca Knaur:
Rebecca Knaur, editor of Smile Politely’s Arts section, makes a habit of drinking mind-altering beverages while writing opinions to be published. She has a highly developed sense of grammar and syntax, but little to no content filter. You can follow her on Twitter, but she rarely checks it, so feel free to reiterate tweets when you see her in person.