january 2017 | Volume 163
L-R: Heidi Damayo, Natalie Backerman. Photo: Emily Cooper.
Qui Nguyen, where have you been all my life? This Vietnamese-American playwright writes plays like no one else—certainly no one else we’ve seen in Vancouver. His plays are like movies and video games come to life, fantasies full of wise-ass dialogue, kick-ass action and great opportunities for design and fight choreography.
Maybe best of all, the action heroes in his two plays seen in Vancouver in the last few months are young women. And his heroic central characters are queer young women.
Soul Samurai, set in a post-apocalyptic, gang-ridden New York, was my top show at this year’s Fringe. She Kills Monsters, in this production directed by Keltie Forsyth and starring UBC Theatre students, takes place mostly inside a version of Dungeons & Dragons.
The central protagonists are four young women plus a single man in a monster mask. They do combat, in sensationally choreographed (and occasionally overly-long) fights, with an array of monstrous creatures, brought to life by other young actors and a host of costume, lighting, sound, prop and set designers.
There’s a serious central story. Agnes (Natalie Backerman) has lost her family in a car crash, including her younger sister, Tilly (Heidi Damayo). Turns out Tilly was a D&D star and had designed a version of the game that Agnes decides to play, with the help of gamer-nerd Chuck (Jed Weiss). In playing the game, Agnes gets to know the little sister she never knew—a lesbian who was mercilessly bullied and used the game to become the conquering hero in her own life.
In death Tilly is the star of her own game, and her comrades include the straight girl she loved and a physically disabled friend (Olivia Lang & Shona Struthers). All are transformed in the game into potent warriors. Agnes becomes transformed, too.
There are some touching and powerful moments involving the sisters, and a few very clever scenes battling the most potent monsters of all, a couple of cheerleader demons (Anni Ramsay & Daelyn Lester-Serafini) of the sort that no doubt made real life hell for Tilly and her friends.
The designed monsters are very impressive in their number, range and the imagination that’s gone into their creation. Ditto for the costumes credited to Melicia Zaini, Carey Dodge’s bone-shaking sound and excellent musical choices, and Stefan Zubovic’s lighting and projections.
And those fights! Mike Kovac and Ryan McNeill Bolton choreograph amazing acrobatic action sequences involving numerous characters fighting with swords, sticks, fists and feet. All the actors seem fully committed, and these fights are sometimes gasp-inducingly exciting.
It’s not all great writing. The nostalgic ‘90s references generally fall flat and the characterizations are mostly pretty thin. Some border on caricature and invite overacting.
But what a fun show, and what a great vehicle for student actors and designers who get to work on material close to their own age and culture, and stretch at the same time. And for the actresses, who get to do the kind of stuff that male actors have always done.
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