I arrived to She Kills Monsters expecting carnivore epicness, and it did not disappoint.
The first monster I saw was myself. Despite being a proud geek, I could not understand what was happening. There was a lack of scenic props and alternative backdrops setting the space. I questioned why event transitions were so unclear, where the protagonist, Agnes, was, how she was able to interact with her dead sister, Tilly, and where the other characters appeared from. Being more of a digital geek, I came unprepared of the inner workings of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). This left me puzzled until I realized expressionism was in play. This artistic approach is known as “seeking to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world.” Rather than constructing a visually physical reality, the goal is to allow the audience to adventure feelings that embody the alternate space – an experience so powerful that they would make the story their own.
With Dungeons and Dragons being a fantasy table top roleplaying game, one base set was manipulated throughout the play with the movement of primarily two table tops, and occasional chairs and hand-held props, but more on those later. It was simply a brown brick wall with two openings on a brown wooden floor. The monochromatic use of the earthy hue and basic archway shape made the scene universal, allowing the audience to recognize it as the place most familiar to them. This could be inside their home, school yard or the road to the park. The designers wanted the audience to be able to imagine their own fantasy world in this familiar space, the way players of Dungeons and Dragons do as they venture with their table top pieces. The game could be played anywhere and with anything, to be imagined as anywhere and as anyhting. And as soon as this encouragement of imagination registered in my mind, I entered an entirely new world within my third-row seat.
The design approach for costumes definitely complimented the theme of playing pretend. Those not in play were dressed average, as they should be. Within play, characters looked distinctively decorated enough to be animatedly recognized but hints of resemblance to their everyday self, served the design approach’s goal very well. Each DnD form spoke an alter ego freckled with their public persona, through masquerades like a leather corset on top of a Target stripped long sleeve. This allowed the audience to feel like they could also pick up objects laying around to form a costume and quickly join the adventure. Dressing the narrator in a cape was another clever touch. I assumed the design aimed to present them as some form of dungeon master. With She Kills Monsters opening and closing with the narrator’s entrance in this storybook manner, this persona worn by the narrator as well as the other characters, helped unify all design elements and remind eyes watching that we were travelling to and from an alternate fantasy universe.
The second monster I saw took several forms. Coloured paper, what I assumed was giant paper clay structures and human limbs just to name a few. The different uses of shapes, sizes, forms and textures used to represent the bosses of each level of DnD spoke to the myriad of things we would use to form narratives in pretend games. Like the paper monsters on popsicle sticks in the She Kills Monsters, our castles would be made of newspaper bricks and cardboard fences. One happening that is embedded in me is the big monster made and operated by the whole cast, apart from the protagonist. The monster’s heads were big paper structures and its body were the characters. Its silhouette stomped and swayed in whole in a cloud of red smoke was five times Anges’ size. Perhaps this was a specific script direction because it felt like an illustration of the Agnes letting go of everything she ever knew and fighting against them to achieve what she wanted. Although she knew this monster was in reality all the other characters, in DnD, it was the final boss. The audience was encouraged to join Agnes on this journey of forgetting what they know to be true objects and individuals, and seeing what their imaginations sing.
This was followed by the last and most vicious beast of all - the single climatic spotlight that glowed Agnes and later Tilly in victory. It is the finish every heroic story screams for, a grand stance in the light of truth and hope. This is a clear example of the design approach’s tools. In true expressionism style, there was instead heavy focus on lighting and sound design. Perhaps this choice of highlight was what pushed me to my design approach realization. Throwbacks took the form of 90s and 2000s hits that left the audience nodding in laughter. Arcade toons and sound effects rang with every character’s kick, weapon swing and stance bounce. During grand entrances and right scenes, the stage dimmed for spotlights of contrasting white and highly saturated mythical colours like purple and green. Smoke accompanied this performance, alongside plentiful individual spotlights that captured the way characters are glorifically showcased in games. The simple technique of adding intense battle lighting and sounds made the same base set a chameleon to the audience’s emotional experience. This design element however would too embody the feeling of isolation in more heartfelt moments of the play. I think this execution touched home for a lot of us there that night because of the existential crisis often experienced in adolescence. I find this significantly prominent for today’s audience as there is growing pressure to meet societal expectations and find your place in the crowd.
I especially applaud how the production was not at all shy with their character entrances and exits. Even as they ascend from and descend to the darkened parts of the space, their acts carried on. One actor would gasp backwards on his back off stage every time he was killed in the game. Truthfully speaking, I sure hope this was scripted because that would be absolutely genius. Details like these animated the entirety of the space because it not only expanded the performance area but also echoed how seriously we took games as children. “The entire room is lava” – “Stay still you’re dead”. I found myself in my favourite powerpuff girl dress, and in the game.
The geek in me shed a tear. I gave them a standing ovation.