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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Review: Tick, Tick… Boom! at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Most theater folk know or at least have heard of the recent Broadway sensation called Hamilton. Now, about 20 years ago, there was another Broadway sensation that caused the same kind of ruckus (whether warranted or unwarranted, depending on who you talk to) written by a Lyricist/Composer/Author named Jonathan Larson called RENT. Well, let’s go back a few years before that and this same Lyricist/Composer/Author wrote a small, three person musical called Tick, Tick… Boom!, an autobiographical account of what he called his failure and frustrations up till that time.

Tick, Tick… Boom! with Book, Music, & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson and Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Stephen Oremus is the latest offering from Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre and is Directed and Choreographed by Jillian Locklear Bauersfeld with Music Direction by Michael W. Tan.

I’m going to admit, I’ve never been a RENT fan by any stretch of the imagination, but… I was pleasantly surprised and quite entertained by this production of Tick, Tick… Boom! and I just might have to give RENT another more comprehensive listen!

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Garrett Zink as Jon. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Beginning with the production aspect, Set Designer/Scenic Artist Alan Zemla used the small Spotlighters space very wisely by not cluttering it with frivolous set pieces but with six black boxes that were moved around and acted as all the set pieces including a bed, a BMW, office furniture, and convenience store counter. The moving of the boxes was incorporated into the blocking and with no other clutter on stage, it was easy for the actors to transition from one scene to the next. Also impressive are the theatre walls themselves. Each wall is cleverly painted to represent New York City from New York Subway walls to a representative skyline. Zemla is to be commended for his work in this production.

Costume Design by Andrew Malone was simple and contemporary as this play is pretty much set in modern times, 1990 to be exact, and, though the “skinny jeans” (or what looks like skinny jeans) the character of Jon is wearing throughout the show may be a bit of a stretch, the plaid button-down was a perfect choice, as were the outfits of the other two characters.

The space is very unique and small with pillars on the four corners of the stage and I imagine it’s a bit difficult to light a production but Lighting Designer Fuzz Roark managed very nicely. Though a little dark at times, the production was lit very appropriately and simply with no major bells and whistles, which is not needed in this production, anyway, and Roark’s lighting scheme was spot on.

Again, being a small space, one would think sound wouldn’t be an issue, however, it is quite a feat to launch a full fledged musical in a small space but Sound Designers Lanoree Blake and Fuzz Roark managed to do just that. There is a full, live pit orchestra only inches away from the stage and none of the actors are equipped with a microphone so, there are only a few times when the balance between the orchestra and the actors is a little wonky and if an actor is on the opposite side of the stage from where one is sitting it’s difficult to hear every line, but I lost nothing from the story and was able to keep up. The sound effects used were appropriate and well placed and moved the story along quite nicely.

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Garret Zink as Jon & Rob Wall as Michael. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

According to the Director’s Note, Director Jillian Locklear Bauersfeld had directed Tick, Tick… Boom! About 10 years ago, while a directing major in college. She states that production was a success and though I can’t speak for her previous attempt, I’m tending to agree with her because this production can be chalked up as a success, as well! Anyone who takes on directing theatre in the round starts off with a challenge, but Bauersfeld pulls this off flawlessly, keeping her actors moving and using her space wisely as to not forget any section of the audience. Her blocking is very fluid and this keeps the pace of the piece moving nicely along, not too fast and not too slow. She seemed to have understood these characters and managed to pull thought-out performances from her cast, and her vision of Jonathan Larson’s life was clear and apparent with minimal sets, costumes, and props.

Garrett Zink as Jon & Clare Kneebone as Karessa. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Garrett Zink as Jon & Clare Kneebone as Karessa. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Music Direction by Baltimore theatre veteran Michael W. Tan (who also plays the keyboard) is superb as he brings the songs of pre-RENT Jonathan Larson to life. There is a certain modern feeling one must understand when dealing with Jonathan Larson and Tan seemed to understand this perfectly. Not the usual “show tunes,” Tan manages to pull the modern pop-rock style from his actors that fit this show like a glove. The fantastic orchestra he’s pulled together, including Christine MacDonald on guitar (with John Jeffries subbing on guitar on certain shows), Greg Bell on bass, and William Georg on percussion, also help make this production all the more enjoyable.

Garrett Zink as Jon & Rob Wall as Michael. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Garrett Zink as Jon & Rob Wall as Michael. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

The only comment I can make on the music of this show is that it is amazing. It is certainly a Jonathan Larson score but it’s modern and melodic and the upbeat songs are driving and the ballads are poignant. If one is familiar with the more famous show from Larson, one can hear the beginnings of most of those songs in these songs. I enjoyed the variety of the score and the attempt at using different styles such as the country and western inspired “Therapy”, the rocking “No More,” and nostalgic, oldies sound of “Sugar.” These upbeat, fun songs were balanced out nicely with poignant power ballads such as “See Her Smile” and “Real Life” that didn’t slow the show down at all, but moved the story along. Also, among these different styles, these songs have a 90s feel to them and, as a kid of the 90s, I was thoroughly entertained!

Clare Kneebone as Susan. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Clare Kneebone as Susan. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, it’s a very small cast consisting of three actors – a perfect size cast for the space. Included in the cast is Garret Zink as Jon, the hapless lyricist/composer/author who’s about to turn 30 years old and doesn’t think he’s done anything with his life, Clare Kneebone as Susan the understanding, but yearning girlfriend of Jon, and Rob Wall as Michael, the forward moving best friend.

Jon is the first character to whom we’re introduced and he serves as the narrator throughout the show. Garret Zink has a very good presence and seems comfortable on stage with perfect articulation even though his Baltimore accent peeks in occasionally. Although his performance seems a little forced at times and his flailing hand gestures sometimes draws attention away from what he’s saying, he still pulls off the role very nicely and you do feel for the character and even relate to him as Zink brings a certain honesty to the character. The Larson score can be challenging (his mentor was Stephen Sondheim for goodness sake!) and aside from struggling a bit in the upper register, Zink was able to make a good showing with appropriate style and presentation.

Garrett Zink as Jon, Clare Kneebone as Susan, and Rob Wall as Michael. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Garrett Zink as Jon, Clare Kneebone as Susan, and Rob Wall as Michael. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Rob Wall as Michael was an absolute joy to watch. From the moment he steps on stage with his big smile and smooth, friendly voice, Wall makes Michael a character who’s easy to like. He’s very comfortable and confident on stage and he moves easily and with purpose. According to his bio, he sang in the Naval Academy Mens Glee Club and was the announcer for Naval Academy parades and with his velvet, booming voice, I don’t doubt it! He performed his songs flawlessly and not only hit the notes, but had that extra understanding of the songs such as “Johnny Can’t Decide” and “Real Life” where he takes the reigns and that takes his performance to a much deeper level. Wall also gives Michael a certain amount of calm that balances out the agitation that Zink gives the Jon character. Wall is certainly one to watch and you don’t want to miss him in this performance!

Clare Kneebone as Susan. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

Clare Kneebone as Susan. Photo Credit: Spotlighters Theatre

This leaves us with Clare Kneebone, who takes on the role of Susan, the girlfriend. Kneebone is the standout in this production and not only because she’s the only female but because she plays this role brilliantly, confidently, and flawlessly. As she stepped onto the stage, it was clear she was a powerhouse and very comfortable on stage. Her performance was very natural and purposeful as it was clear she understood her character and what her character was going through. Along with a fantastic acting talent (as she plays various characters, including a theatrical agent and an actress in a workshop of a new show), Kneebone has a very impressive musical talent as well and her big, beautiful voice shines throughout this production, namely in her solo number, “Come to Your Senses,” a true power ballad in which she’s not even playing the role of Susan, but of another character – the actress in the workshop of a new show, Karessa. Her performance alone should be reason enough to see this show!

Final thought… Tick, Tick… Boom! Is a show that shouldn’t be missed! Even if you aren’t a huge RENT fan, that’s OK because this show absoltuely stands on its own. Yes, you will see the beginnings of that more famous show, but it’s to be expected as it’s the same lyricist/composer/author and it’s definitely his unique style. This cast is great, the music is fun, and story is certainly relatable! Go see this show!

This is what I thought of this production of Tick, Tick… Boom!.… what do you think?

Tick, Tick… Boom! will play through July 31, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm with a Ten Spot Thursday on July 14 at 8pm at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.