“She Kills Monsters,” presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, written by Qui Nguyen and directed by Kayla Minton Kaufman, is a delightfully fun, action-packed comedy with a skilled cast. While the show initially appears to be just a fun hour and a half of “Dungeons & Dragons” jokes, it is also a heartwarming tale about the process of overcoming grief that will enthrall all audiences, whether they are “Dungeons & Dragons” fans or not.
Taking place in Ohio in 1995, “She Kills Monsters” follows Agnes (Joyce Domanico-Huh), a 25-year-old schoolteacher whose sister, Tilly (Jaqueline Wolfe), was killed in a car crash. Tilly was a locally renowned “Dungeons & Dragons” player, so when Agnes finds Tilly’s old notebook filled with a campaign she wrote for the game, Agnes plays it to find out more about her sister. In the process, Agnes learns how to grieve. Through a “Dungeons & Dragons”-style adventure from her sister, Agnes is able to finally let go of her dark past and find a new tribe.
While this storyline is undoubtedly gloomy, “She Kills Monsters” maintains the tone of an engaging comedy, complete with everyone’s favorite nerdy tropes from the 1990s. The play perfectly utilizes ’90s pop culture as much as possible, setting battle sequences and comedic moments to iconic ’90s tracks, such as the “Friends” theme. The humor, while irreverent, strikes a chord with audiences. It is impossible not to laugh during the show, even for someone with minimal knowledge of the “Dungeons & Dragons” universe and its complexities.
Domanico-Huh, in particular, leads the show with ease, providing a genuine urgency in Agnes’ quest to discover more about her sister. She is heartwarming in the show’s more vulnerable moments while also keeping up with the fight choreography, in addition to being a comedic standout. Her chemistry with Wolfe’s Tilly is also wonderful, providing the comedic show with a strong emotional base. Even the actors playing minor characters are on point with their comedic timing, especially Amanda Bailey as Steve, whose entrances never failed to incite laughs from the audience. Every actor fully commits to the occasional ridiculousness of the nerdy humor, making the show much more entertaining.
“She Kills Monsters” would be incomplete without the show’s energetic fight choreography. Each fight scene is excellent and interesting, while still leaving room for the show’s comedic beats. Complete with dance battles, flying limbs and shape-shifting, gelatinous blobs, the fight choreography is refreshing and unique, but still meticulously choreographed and well-executed. Additionally, the show’s costuming perfectly captures the “Dungeons & Dragons” characters that Tilly created, costuming the entire cast — with the exception of Agnes’ schoolteacher garb — in stereotypically scandalous video game outfits. The costuming and wigs also allow for actors to play many parts, helping a small cast work well for the production as a whole.
While the production takes place in the unassuming La Val’s Subterranean Theatre, the actors use the venue’s intimacy to their advantage. Even in the small space, the props remain elaborate, including five intricate dragon heads that appear for Agnes’ final battle. Furthermore, the cast’s energy fills the space wonderfully, making the theater feel larger than it actually is. Although the small area makes for a minimalistic set and partial obstruction from the stage, the show’s content remains uninhibited.
While “She Kills Monsters” is especially hilarious for fans of “Dungeons & Dragons,” the play is an eclectic comedy for all adult audiences, no matter what kind of nerd they may be. The show’s themes transcend, making “She Kills Monsters” nothing less than a delight.