Review by Thomas Gregory
It’s 2011. Media giant Critical Role does not yet exist. Dan Harmon has just started his podcast, and very few people are listening. Not many people know about Vin Diesel’s nerdy hobby. Despite all this, Qui Nguyen (who would later write the screenplay for Raya and the Last Dragon) has written a play about Dungeons and Dragons.
She Kills Monsters is about far more than the dice-throwing, fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons. At its core, it is a play about grief, siblings, and sexual identity. Between the rise of the game in “popular nerd culture” and the growing need for quality scripts about the queer experience, Nguyen’s play has risen in popularity over the years, with the writer even producing a high-school-appropriate version known as the “Young Adventurers Edition”.
Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) have taken this play and put on one of the most ambitious productions I have ever witnessed from a student group. With big set pieces, complex sound and lighting design, and the largest puppet I have seen in a not-for-profit production, this play swings for the fences. Being a part of Melbourne Fringe is about taking such risks, and I am so excited that at least one group in the festival is doing such a thing.
Gemma Livingstone, the director of She Kills Monsters, mentions in the program that she loves how “in that brief moment where something happens on stage — actors, crew and audience alike are all connected.” This is certainly one of those productions where everyone needs to be on board. The fantastic nineties-inspired set design by Georgia Kate Bell and Cameron Dale is striking - three raised stages to be climbed, sat on, crawled under, and entered from various heights means the world changes in a heartbeat without any piece being moved.
In reality and fantasy, these constantly changing worlds are highlighted by Justin Heaton’s lighting design. While sometimes perhaps more complex than necessary, with higher chances for technical failure in some scenes, the design’s use of colour angles makes for some very cinematic moments. The sound design by Patrick Edwards and Sofia Jorgovic is superb - some of the sound effect choices add the perfect flavour to the comedic physical performances of the ensemble cast.
Of course, this means more than anything that the true “heroes” of this adventure/drama/comedy production are the stage managers and technicians working each night. Some fight scenes would have required dozens of cues for sound, lighting and props, while only the most organised managers could ensure people were not tripping over each other behind the scenes. A massive kudos to Eric Stone, Ruby Mattingley, and Eisha de Silva, and I hope they get well-deserved breaks when this is all over.
While the show is complex, extravagant, and sometimes too ambitious for its own good when it comes to production values, it is important to note that MUST has not forgotten the strong fundamentals. For all the sword fights, magic, and adventuring, this is a play about two sisters, one passed on, and their attempt to finally connect with each other. Sarah Matthews does a wonderful job bringing out the grief and guilt found in the character of Agnes, while Kyra Hatzikosmidis is perfect as Tilly/Tillius, the sister forever immortalised by death and fiction. While everyone in the cast is brilliant at both comedy and drama, these two, and the chemistry of their relationship, truly sell this show.
There is so much to praise about She Kills Monsters. Yes, some elements of costuming and props were hindered by budget, and it is my opinion that the original script itself is far from perfect. It is still hard to imagine that any other group in Melbourne could have produced something as heartfelt and as ambitiously realised as MUST.