‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away
. . .” Or, in the words of playwright Qui Nguyen, “In a time before Facebook, Worlds of Warcraft, and Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs, there once existed simply a game.” The game, in Nguyen’s 2011 fantasy “She Kills Monsters,” is Dungeons & Dragons, which in the digital 21st century might well seem a long time ago and a galaxy far far away. But Nguyen’s meditation on tolerance, sisterhood, the games we love to play, and the stories we love to tell is timeless, and the Company One production now up at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre is a comic strip with heart.
The “she” who kills monsters is 15-year-old Tilly Evans, of Athens, Ohio; her D&D name is Tillius the Paladin, healer of the wounded and the protector of lights. As the play opens, she and her parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving behind Tilly’s 25-year-old schoolteacher sister, Agnes the Average, and a notebook containing “The Lost Soul of Athens,” a D&D adventure that Tilly created. Agnes never paid much attention to her sister, but now she’s hoping to connect through the notebook, so she seeks out über-geek teenager Chuck. Suddenly Agnes finds herself inside the notebook, joining a leather-clad Tilly and her friends Lilith Morningstar and Kaliope Darkwalker on a quest to recapture the lost soul of Athens from Orcus, demon lord of the underworld. It turns out that Tilly based her characters on people she knew, and that brings Agnes and Tilly uncomfortably close.
Directed in a broad style by Shira Milikowsky, Company One’s production starts with a cloaked and hooded Jacqui Dupré narrating those opening words and evoking, as Nguyen’s stage directions ask, Cate Blanchett’s Elf lady Galadriel in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Erik D. Diaz’s creative set represents Tilly’s bedroom with wall-to-wall posters (Metallica, Hole, Black Flag, Ed Wood) before shifting to a convincing dungeon. Gradually stereotypes emerge: Mike Handelman as eager-beaver Chuck, who plays air guitar on a broomstick and emphasizes every syllable with a nod of his head, and Jordan Sobel as Agnes’s boyfriend, Miles, who after five years of dating wants her to move in with him but hasn’t mentioned marriage. When Agnes discovers that Tilly and her girl warriors are — at least in the game — lesbians, and that even Orcus is gay, “She Kills Monsters” threatens to turn into an “After School Special” moralizing about bullying and homophobia.
Nguyen’s real subject, however, is the relationship between the sisters, here played by Jordan Clark as Tilly and Paige Clark Perkinson as Agnes. Clark was part of a sister act in Company One’s previous production, Mia Chung’s “You for Me for You.” In “She Kills Monsters,” she stars opposite her real-life sister, and the chemistry is palpable. Perkinson is perfect for Agnes, a blank slate who’s as clueless about D&D as she is about her sister’s inner life and yet learns how to slay puppet monsters with style. Clark’s miniskirted Tilly doesn’t cut Agnes any slack, but in her own game world she radiates happiness, and also respect for Agnes’s participation and growing prowess. Adobuere Ebiama as Kaliope and Meredith Saran as Lilith are powerful superheroes and double effectively as Tina’s real-life friends Kelly and Lily. Noam Ash is hilarious as plaid-shirted gamer Steve, whose every intrusion into “The Lost Soul of Athens” ends in disaster; so are Stewart Evan Smith’s couch-potato, “Friends”-transfixed Orcus, and Dupré and Kaitee Tredway as evil school cheerleaders who hassle Tilly. And Jamianne Devlin is nasal and no-nonsense as high-school guidance counselor Vera, who, as Agnes’s best friend, keeps telling her to dump Miles.
But if Miles is man enough to join Agnes in her D&D adventure, maybe he’ll be man enough to propose. That’s the beauty of Company One’s “She Kills Monsters”: It does transcend stereotype, and it keeps you guessing till the end.