KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 7, 2019 – When the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department drew up its schedule for the season, one play was in high demand among theater students. That demand will be met when the comic, fantastic romp “She Kills Monsters” opens Nov. 14 in Robert E. Will Theatre.
Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2011, details the journey of Agnes Evans, a school teacher who is mourning the death of her little sister, Tilly, who was killed in a car crash along with their parents. Agnes had never gotten to know her geeky, 15-year-old sister. Tormented with grief, she discovers the playbook Tilly created for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Agnes enlists a nerdy student, Chuck, to serve as dungeon master as she re-creates Tilly’s final quest, sending Agnes on a heart-pounding crusade through a world of monsters, killer fairies, evil elves, and ‘90s pop culture to reconnect with her sister.
“The play is wildly popular among college students for multiple reasons,” says director Madison Cook-Hines. “It can have a cast of fewer than 10 or you can have a ton of people. So, it’s great for an educational environment where you want everyone to have a chance to participate.
“It’s also a very keenly adolescent show,” she adds. “The playwright does a singularly heartfelt job of portraying these teenagers in a way that’s completely authentic to their behavior and the nuances of their sarcasm and stupid witticisms, but also doesn’t diminish them. He finds a real wisdom to youth that the adults learn from. It’s also a spectacle piece. It’s gigantic and I think lots of people my age just want to pick up swords and fight giant dragons.”
For Cook-Hines, who graduated from URI last spring with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in directing, this is her first professional directing job. Since graduating, she has apprenticed as an assistant director at the Gloucester Stage Company. Perhaps her best preparation was the independent play she wrote, cast, directed and staged in Will Theatre last spring.
“’Daughters of Lavinia’ was really a great way to prepare because I worked at every single level of production to see it through,” says Cook-Hines, of Coventry. “It parallels this play quite nicely.”
She also created numerous puppets for “Daughters of Lavinia” – and puppets play a big role in “She Kills Monsters.” More than a dozen large puppets, representing monsters from Dungeons & Dragons lore are part of the play, including a Tiamat, a 17-foot-tall, five-headed dragon. They lend to the play’s chaos – along with a parade of warriors who battle their way through fairies, elves, goblins and other monsters in fight scenes choreographed to ‘90s hip-hop.
Shannon Donnelly ‘21, who plays Tilly, was attracted by the play’s technical and fantasy elements. But she also appreciated its representation of lesbian and gay characters. “This show is really a nice step in that direction,” says Donnelly, of North Providence. “It takes place in the 1990s when the conversation about gay people was a lot less open. My character was bullied in school because she was the stereotype of a dorky lesbian, even though she hadn’t come out. She creates this Dungeon & Dragons world where she is accepted because everyone in it is gay.”
Lecturer Max Ponticelli has designed a set that clearly distinguishes the play’s two worlds – with the reality appearing washed out and two dimensional and the fantasy world full of texture and color. That’s important in a 90-minute play where scene changes happen on the fly and the action never slows.
“The play moves at the speed of fantasy,” says Cook-Hines. “The characters are popping back and forth between worlds. It’s a jarring transition for Agnes. As much as she wants to get to know her sister, this isn’t her world.”
That’s how Erin McGowan ‘21, who plays Agnes, feels. “I’ve never read a show like this before, especially how it jumps around,” says McGowan, of Zionsville, Pennsylvania. “It’s almost jarring to read. But once you’re in it, it makes more sense. It’s something where you really have to have a cast that’s willing to communicate, and a director who’s able to clearly articulate her vision.”
It’s a vision that’s been enhanced by the designers, many of them students in the theater program.
Dean Hernandez ’20 has served as puppet designer. Along with Melissa Hayes ’22, he’s created 22 puppets – Kobalds, goblins, worgs, a gelatinous cube – so many that about a dozen volunteers were recruited to help build them.
“The fast-paced speed of this show requires that many of the creatures come and go as quickly as possible, but they still look and operate as intended,” says Hernandez, of East Providence. “Madison had an incredible vision of the duality of the real world versus the fantasy world. The real world looks almost cartoonish and fake, while the D&D world is as real as you can make it. The puppets needed to reflect this. We didn’t want to go with an abstract look for the puppets, but for them to appear and operate as real as physically possible.”
Costume designer Magenta Kolakowski ’20, of Riverside, has designed about 10 costumes for the show from scratch—from idea to sketch to pattern to reality. The rest of the approximately 45 costumes she’s created from the department’s large costume inventory. “I’m trying to capture the richness of an entire world in costumes,” says Kolakowski. “I call them high fantasy. It’s similar to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ where everything is based on this almost pseudo historical world.”
And warriors need weapons, so there are plenty – swords, a battle axe, a club, staffs, says prop designer Lily Ferreira ’20, of Middletown. Because the source material was clear, researching the weapons’ design was straightforward. But Ferreira ensured they were lightweight and safe, while designing them for the large Will Theatre.
“Everything has to be bigger and brighter because in Will the closest seat is 30 feet away,” says Ferreira. “They need to be seen from all the way at the top, because those audience members deserve the same show that people up front get.”
“She Kills Monsters” runs Nov. 14-16 and Nov. 21-23 with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert E. Will Theatre in the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Shows on Nov. 17 and 24 start at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors and URI students, faculty and staff. Click here for tickets or call the box office at (401) 874-5843.
Character, actor, hometown (in order of appearance):
Narrator: Olivia Morrow, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Tilly Evans: Shannon Donnelly, North Providence
Puppeteer: Emma Becker, Tiverton
Puppeteer: Jenna Muldoon, Staten Island, New York
Steve: David J. Roberts, Newport
Agnes Evans: Erin McGowan, Zionsville, Pennsylvania
Chuck Biggs: Alexander Linn, Hanover, Massachusetts
Miles: Matthew Corbett, Attleboro, Massachusetts
Lilith: Jess Ring, Coventry
Kaliope: Edhaya, Chennai, India
Puppeteer: Owen Gilmartin, South Kingstown
Orcus: Colin Cleary, Harvard, Massachusetts
Vera: Lorraine Guerra, Cranston
Farrah: Alana Parrott, Webster, Massachusetts
Evil Gabbi: Mackenzie Blake, Cranston
Evil Tina: Carleigh Boyle, Hillsdale, New Jersey