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Geeks "Kill Monsters" in UBC student phantasmagoria

Role-play, sword-play & wild FX in Qui Nguyen's campy, poignant VR send-up

Cutting-edge comedy of teenage angst. Photo: Emily Cooper

High school nostalgia tragicomedy has lately emerged as Vancouver’s genre of choice for currently enrolled or recently graduated drama students.

It stands to reason. Such extravaganzas allow myriad cast and crew to strut their stuff before a guaranteed hometown crowd of friends and family. Plus the stories speak to the recent and vivid experience of ensemble and audience members alike. The subject matter is emotionally fraught, yet it lends itself to a lighter send-up treatment with an uplifting denouement.

I love these shows for the same reasons that I love to attend christenings, Bar Mitzvahs and commencement ceremonies: the pageantry, the impossibly high-minded speechifying and the youthful, hopeful energy.

She Kills Monsters, by the UBC drama department at the Chan Centre’s Telus Studio, is the latest – and by far the wiggiest – exemplar. It’s set in the role-playing fantasy world of the 1990’s vintage tabletop board game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), granddaddy to much of today’s digital demimonde of virtual- and augmented-reality.

And a properly patriarchial “granddaddy” it was, too, as director Keltie Forsyth points out in her Telus Studio programme notes. The original game was overwhelmingly dominated by Caucasian, male, cis gendered players and their corresponding avatars.

But She Kills Monsters zeroes in on an outlier: a girl geek, a15-year-old lesbian (here played by Heidi Damayo). Author Qui Nguyen unsentimentally polishes her off in a prologue before even the first scene of his script; she dies in a car crash, leaving only a hand-scribbled D&D playbook as a touchstone for her surviving elder sister (Natalie Beckerman) to try to retroactively “get” her.

So, aided by an oafish teenage Dungeon Master (Jed Weiss), the sister assumes an avatar of her own and plunges into the fantasy milieu. There she encounters her dorky little sibling as an awesome “paladin” with a trio of faithful acolytes (demon/lover Shana Strothers, Aspie elf Olivia Lang and slacker ogre Aidan Wright).

Together they fight off a pair of succubii (Daelyn Lester-Sarafini and Anni Ramsay), a spitfire fairy (Jodi Margit) and a hapless, underfoot schlemiel (Rafael Ruiz). All these characters turn out to have real world analogues in the plain vanilla midwestern high school where the elder sister still teaches English and the late geek was a lonely outcast.

 Even school’s “adults” – Drew-Ann Carlson as a tart-tongued guidance counsellor and Louis Lim as the surviving sibling’s vacillating boyfriend – tap into their inner teens as they get dragged into the fantasy world. Of course it all works out into a happily-ever-after ending, as narrator Hanna Everett relates in an epilogue.

But a plot summary hardly begins to convey the snappy wit of Qui’s quirky script. Nor the sheer, over-the-top luxuriance of Alaia Hamer’s sets, Melicia Zaini’s costumes, Nicolette Szabo’s puppets or Stefan Zubovic’s psychedelic light show.

The fight-coaching team of Mike Kovac and Ryan McNeill Bolton trained up the cast to combat trim, while choreographer Stefanie Michaud set them dancing to sound designer Carey Dodge’s throbbing score.

All these coaches and designers worked with retinues of student assistants and faculty advisors. It shows; the high-gloss production bespeaks copious hours of group effort. And it all fits together like clockwork, thanks to the coordinating genius of stage manager Dustan Baranow-Watts and his team.

The Telus studio provides the perfect venue for such a production, too. Where else can you get four tiers of seating enfolding a wide-open theatre in the round apron for light projection and hyper-kinetic action?

She Kills Monsters runs through February 3rd.

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