Larger-than-life special effects, elaborate costumes and brave heroines fighting monsters are all defining points of the play “She Kills Monsters.” In the midst of all the action, the production tackles the difficult themes of loss and coming out.
Senior theater performance major Kayla Bush, of Chicago, who plays Kelly/Kaliope Darkwalker, a fictional elf in a mythical Dungeons and Dragons game world, said the theme of coming out and all its hardships is central to the production.
“It definitely goes about showing the struggles and the trials and tribulations of being someone who is gay and trying to come out to your family and how hard that is,” Bush said. “Sometimes you really don’t know what your family and friends are going through at the time … you don’t really see what’s going on on the inside, and I think our director has done a really good job of showing that on stage.”
The play follows Agnes Evans as she grieves the loss of her younger sister Tilly by diving into Tilly’s mythical D&D game scenarios. Throughout this process, she discovers she didn’t really know much about her sister — including Tilly’s hidden sexuality.
For Tilly, Dungeons and Dragons allowed her to cultivate the brave person she wished to be in real life. According to the show’s director theater education coordinator Tress Kurzym, Tilly’s fictional world allowed her to come out to Agnes in a courageous way.
“I think that we all know people who feel like they can’t be who they are for a multitude of reasons, and so Dungeons and Dragons allows for wish fulfillment because when you’re holding onto that secret … from what I know from my friends and family who have spoken to me about it and I’ve listened, you feel like it’s eating you inside when you have this secret, and you can’t really be the fullest, most amazing version of yourself,” Kurzym said. “So for Tilly, the game allowed her to be brave and bold. In the game, she gets to come out in a very brave and bold way to her sister, in a way she didn’t get to in life.”
Agnes discovering her dead sister’s sexuality through the intimate realms of the game scenario guarantees an emotional reaction from the audience, according to junior technical theater major and assistant costume designer Riley McDade, of Millstadt, Illinois.
“My own personal perspective is that it’s an emotional experience, as I’ve been through the whole coming-out phase and the familial loss, but I know some people haven’t, and I feel like this [play] puts it in a certain light that really pulls you into the emotional experience with Agnes,” McDade said.
Kurzym recognizes each LGBTQ+ individual’s coming-out story is unique, and Tilly’s story will not directly resemble that of others. She said she believes discussing these experiences hones in on the mission of theater.
“Theater at its core is about empathy and understanding,” Kurzym said. “There are so many different types of stories to tell when you’re talking about coming out stories ... Coming out in the LGBTQ queer community presents its own challenges, and so I think that having people talk about this in any way is a win.”
Though the narrative deals with the hard topics of coming out and grief, McDade said the show’s humorous nature provides the audience relief, while at the same time not turning the intense topics into objects of jokes.
“This play managed to balance those two things without the two colliding,” McDade said. “There are no jokes being pointed directly at the heavy subjects. It’s something I’ve found by going through other people’s writings is sometimes hard to avoid.”
McDade said he appreciates this, as coming out during the time period the play is set in was not something to make the object of jokes.
“When it comes to something as serious to someone coming out, especially in the ‘90s when this is happening, it was a big deal and it’s not something you really joked about,” McDade said. “I feel like it would be inappropriate to pick fun of something like that when it’s such a serious topic within the play, but they do manage to get some good comedy in there without affecting the emotional subjects.”
As the story switches between real life and Tilly’s D&D world, Kurzym said she needed to dive into the game in order to tell Tilly’s story. In preparation for directing the show, she played the game with her family in addition to seeking serious members of the D&D community through different friend circles. She also attended D&D Saturdays at Heroic Adventures.
Kurzym said through her research she found the game brings together many different people, just as the original playwright Qui Nguyen had said when talking about the show.
“I think that Dungeons and Dragons is a great equalizer of people,” Kurzym said. “So people that you wouldn’t expect to play do play or have played … because it is that great equalizer, [seasoned players] love to find new people to teach the game to and pass on that tradition and love for the game.”
The dice used in the role-playing game also lend symbolism to the story, Kurzym said.
“I think that what the playwright’s intention is, and certainly how I’ve addressed it as the director, is that we only have people with us in our lifetime for as long as really luck, or whatever you want to call it, will have it because I also think that’s what the part of the dice is in Dungeons and Dragons is: they represent the randomness of life. So, you can ask for all these wonderful things, but sometimes life gives you a bad roll,” Kurzym said.
“She Kills Monsters” saw its first performance Wednesday night, and will continue to run at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday in the Dunham Hall Theater. Sunday’s matinee performance will be held at 2 p.m. in the theater.