Our Party Grows: Qui Ngyen’s She Kills Monsters, Dungeons & Dragons, and Geek Theater
In the early 1980s, when I was around twelve or thirteen, my older brother got into a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Long before I knew what the game was about, I encountered traces of it around the house. There were the dice—translucent plastic jewels, each with its unique number of facets—and the drawstring bag they were kept in. There were the sheets of paper with maps of corridors and rooms scrawled on them. There were the books that the dungeon masters used to create the fantasy worlds in which the games—or ‘campaigns’—would take place. At some point, I snuck off with my brother’s monster manual and read through it, looking at all the alphabetically-ordered and illustrated descriptions of the supernatural adversaries with which one might stock an imaginary dungeon. They came in all forms, but only a few impressed me enough to stick in my memory at this late date. Including—for very different reasons—the succubus and the gelatinous cube.
Both creatures turn up in hilarious yet complicated ways in Qui Nguyen’s 2011 play She Kills Monsters. Five years before Stranger Things did it, She Kills Monsters shows us Dungeons & Dragons as a metaphor through which the play’s protagonists can understand, navigate, and hopefully conquer an overwhelming world full of unexpected changes and apocalyptic threats. Like Nguyen’s contemporaneous play The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G (a 2011 off-Broadway cult hit whose cast included The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper), She Kills Monsters uses geek culture to explore the real pain of trying to find a place for the fantastic creature that you are becoming in a mundane and homogeneous world whose banal surface conceals the cruelty that lies beneath.
After losing her family in a car crash, Agnes discovers that her younger sister Tilly led a second life in the gaming world (at least the gaming world of Athens, Ohio) as Tillius the Paladin, a formidable D&D player and a dungeon master of great renown. Discovering that Tilly left behind a plan for a campaign that she never finished, Agnes decides to play it. With a local teenager as her dungeon master and an imaginary Tillius by her side, Agnes searches for the Lost Soul of Athens and a closer connection to the sister she realizes she never knew—one monster at a time.
All of that sounds heavier than it feels. She Kills Monsters combines some of the favorite themes of realism—family, identity, the struggle of the individual subject to come to grips with a hostile world—with the forms of “geek theater,” a genre pioneered in the 2000s by Qui Nguyen and his own party of adventurers, the Vampire Cowboys of New York City. The first commandment of geek theater is: thou shalt have fun. Action-driven, adrenaline-fueled, and flashing the neon-bright aesthetic of comic books and superhero movies, geek theater is a thrilling manifestation of the always-unfulfilled desire driving most forms of fan culture: the wish to make the imaginary real. Considering that this is the same desire that drives theater culture, it seems strange that it took the 21st century to bring the two things together. Starting in 2002, the Vampire Cowboys of New York City capitalized on that synergy, writing and staging plays that brought science fiction, fantasy, martial-arts, and horror tropes to life through sensational combat scenes laced with quirky humor and metadramatic ironies. “Geek theater” might be understood as either an elaborate form of cosplay—in which fans dress up as their favorite characters—or as the fully-realized form of the latent theatricality built into Dungeons & Dragons and all the role-playing games that it inspired. Game play in Dungeons & Dragons is a blend of narration and performance, with the dungeon master setting the scene and establishing the parameters within which the players develop their characters by making choices–just as Aristotle would have wanted it. In She Kills Monsters, the histrionics of a typical D&D game develop seamlessly into total theater, as (for Agnes and the spectators) the game world becomes at least as absorbing and as ‘real’ as our own.
She Kills Monsters also addresses some of the less ideal aspects of geek culture, such as its historical exclusion of girls and women. She Kills Monsters is set in the late 1990s, when girl gamers like Tilly were relatively rare. Back in the early eighties, my brother did finally let me into one of his parties—we were on summer vacation; his options were limited—but I found the experience disappointing. The playfulness and spontaneity re-enacted by Will’s party on Stranger Things or Chuck and his gamer friends in She Kills Monsters was absent; my teenage brother, no doubt, couldn’t really be himself in front of his younger sister, and I remember the game as cerebral and plodding, graph-paper-based and rule-bound. The game lived on in my imagination; somewhere in someone’s archive is a yellowing and crumbling issue of my middle school’s newspaper that includes a short story in which a party of adventurers tragically fails to defeat a gelatinous cube. But D&D never became, for me, a social activity—until now. For this generation, the participation of girls, women, and queer people of all ages and genders in fandom and gaming–not to mention stage combat–is normalized in a way that I couldn’t have imagined back then; and that’s one more reason to celebrate this production of She Kills Monsters.
Best of all, She Kills Monsters challenges the idea that games are for children, and that becoming an adult means that you have to stop playing. Community theater is built on the belief that play is essential for everyone, and that adults need and benefit from it just as children do. As with gaming, the element of risk is one of the things that gives zest to the theatrical enterprise. To select any play for production is to roll a whole handful of hundred-sided dice, believing that you will turn whatever comes up into a winning combination. With luck and perseverance, the party always prevails–as we solve new puzzles, slay unforeseen difficulties, and meet new comrades. Our party grows! Join us at She Kills Monsters, March 13-15.
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