Review: She Kills Monsters at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Stephen Edwards, Danielle Shorts, Lanoree Blake, Rachel Verhaaren, and Amanda Harris. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Have you ever role-played with a Dungeon Master? Acted out your fantasies with a group of people in in a dimly lit basement? Sounds kinda kinky, no? Well, I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons or D&D for those in the know. If you don’t know a damned thing about D&D, don’t feel bad, I didn’t either and never even had an inkling to dabble in it. However, I have had friends that have taken the leap and started campaigns with like minded folks and have had a blast and made some great friends. It’s almost like it’s own culture and if you do want to get an idea of what this game and culture are all about, head on down to see Spotlighters Theatre‘s latest offering, She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, Directed by Stephanie Miller, with Set Design by Alan Zemla, and Costume Design by Lanoree Blake. With a well thought-out script and a cast who has a great comprehension of the material, She Kills Monsters is one of the best productions running at the moment.

Andrea Bush, Amanda Harris, and Danielle Shorts. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

She Kills Monsters follows the story of Agnes, an average 20-something in the mid-90s, as she struggles with the loss of her entire family in a car crash, including her younger sister Tilly, who she realizes she never really knew. Through the popular role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and with the help of Chuck, a sort of expert of the game, Agnes navigates through a fantasy world created by sister to discover who she was and, in the midst of it all, discovers things about herself. Throw in a band of fanciful allies, an uncertain relationship with an average boyfriend, a sassy best friend, and evil cheerleaders, you have an entertaining and thoughtful story to which everyone can relate in one way or another.

The story is, in a word, brilliant. It’s funny, poignant, and well thought-out and the short scenes lend itself to good pacing. The audience is enthralled and all-in from the start creating an electrified energy throughout the small theatre. The script cleverly guides the audience into rooting for these characters and before you know it, you’re invested, which is what a good script is supposed to do.

Set Design by Alan Zemla. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Set Design by Alan Zemla is minimal, as expected for the intimate space, but that’s not to say it’s boring because that it is not. Zemla uses his space wisely and utilizes the corners of the theatre that almost gives an immersive feel to the entire production. Zemla knows his space and makes it work beautifully for this production.

Lanoree Blake’s Costume Design is spot on as this story takes place in the 90s and, at first glance, I knew exactly what time period I was in. Her attention to detail took me back to a time when Nirvana ruled the airwaves and flannel was high fashion. Her design for the fantasy world, New Landia, are also impressive and fitting for each character that is created. Kudos to Blake for her work on this production.

Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

I wouldn’t do this production justice without mentioning the exquisite Sound Design by Stephanie Miller, who happens to take the helm of this production as Director, as well. The carefully chosen music for this production is on point and fits it perfectly. Mostly themes from video games, it the design has a nostalgic feel that puts the audience at ease (those who are old enough to remember these sounds from the 90s that are ingrained in our psyche).

Miller also has an exquisite understanding of this story and crafts the story in a way that’s easy to follow, even if you aren’t familiar with the nuances of the game. Her casting is superb and her vision is apparent. She guides this cast seamlessly through the complex but relatable story and the very short scenes run at a great pace but aren’t choppy helping the entire production run smoothly.

Tina James as Vera. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

As characters in the real world, Miles, the doting but average boyfriend played by Peter Daly, and Vera, the sassy best friend played by Tina James, keep Agnes as grounded as possible. James does a commendable job as Vera, portraying her as a strong-willed, sarcastic, but caring friend and her deadpan style humor, though scripted at times, works quite well for the character and adds to the character. Daly does a fine job in his portrayal but, in the intimate space, I got the feeling he was uncomfortable making a connection with his cast mates as his eyes dart all over the place, rarely making eye contact while having a dialogue with anyone and it’s somewhat of a distraction to his performance. Otherwise, he seems to understand his character quite well and is committed to his role.

Michael Crook and Peter Daly. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Michael Crook tackles the role of the very helpful, over-zealous Chuck, the resident expert of Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s as if Crook was born for this role. At times, he’s a little too much and over the top, but that very well could be the intimate space making his gesturing and voice bigger than intended. I imagine in a larger space, he’s on point. He does, however, embody a teen-aged boy excited about playing make-believe and he gives an impressive performance.

In a supporting but extremely humorous role, Sam Cure takes on the character of Steve, a fellow player of D&D who pops up in the middle of various fights Tilly’s group gets into only to be struck down, quickly, every time. Again, Cure has little stage time, but what he does have tickles the funny bone and his portrayal almost has you rooting for him.

Danielle Shorts and Amanda Harris. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Amanda Harris as Kaliope and Danielle Shorts as Lilith are stunning in their roles as members and femme fatales (but good guys) of Tilly’s rag-tag New Landia campaign. Shorts has her character down-pat and gives a confident performance with a good command of the stage while Harris’ character is more subdued but her portrayal is equally as commendable and she looks comfortable in the role. Both of these actors have great chemistry with each other making for splendid performances.

Zoe Lunga and Claire Iverson. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Taking on the villainous roles in this production, Zoe Lunga and Claire Iverson take on the roles of Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, respectively, and they play these evil cheerleaders to the hilt. Both actresses give believable performances and I can imagine both of these bully characters roaming the halls of any high school in the country today. Along with the ultimate mean girls is Andrea Bush who takes on the role of Farrah, the smack-talking, rough-around-the-edges fairy guard who is trying to thwart our unlikely heroes. Bush is absolutely hilarious as this dirty-mouthed fairy and gives a superb, no-holds-barred performance.

Lanoree Blake as Tilly. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

A couple of definite highlights of this production are Lanoree Blake as Tilly and Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Both actors have great chemistry and seem to have a great comprehension of the characters. Lanoree completely embodies her character of a teen-aged “outsider” who has found comfort and a chosen family in this game and world she has created. Her portrayal of Tilly, giving her a rough exterior but a fragile soul, is top notch and makes for some very poignant scenes. Verhaaren gives an authentic performance as an older sister and has great chemistry with her cast mates. Her yearning and strife are well portrayed and you feel for this character from the get and are happy to go on this journey with her. Kudos to superb performances for both of these actors.

Stephen Edwards as Orcus. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

The standout of this production, mainly for his acting chops and comfort on stage is the funny and confident Stephen Edwards who takes on the role of Orcus, an evil soul-snatcher who has pretty much given up and called it quits on the evil business and joins our heroes on their quest to recover Tilly’s soul (more so because he’s the one that lost it and is forced to help). Edwards is a natural on stage and so comfortable in this role, he puts the audience at ease. His performance seems effortless as he throws out one-liners (many of which refer to the 90s and are dear to my heart) and, even though his character is evil, or was at one time, Edwards plays the role in such a way that he is absolutely likable. From his delivery of his lines to his movement about the stage he gives a near flawless performance that is not to be missed and I hope to see more from this actor in the future.

Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Final thought… She Kills Monsters at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, thoughtful piece that you do not want to miss this season. The story is deep and poignant with an important message of not only self-discovery but discovery and acceptance of those closest to you. With a brilliant, raw script and dedicated performances from a cast who gives 100%, this production of She Kills Monsters is a highlight of the season and a great way to end out for Spotlighters to end out their 55th season. Do yourself a favor and get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of She Kills Monsters… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

She Kills Monsters will play through June 18 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

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