‘She Kills Monsters’ is a sister act, offstage and on
When Company One announced its 2012-13 season, Jordan Clark and Paige Clark Perkinson got pretty excited.
Not one but two plays on the list featured a pair of sisters as the lead characters. To make it even better, one of the plays was about Korea. Clark, 22, and Perkinson, 25, are half Korean.
Perkinson: "I think I was actually the one who told you."
Clark: "No, I called you."
"I saw it online and called you, and you said you knew it already."
"OK, I knew before you told me."
Clark eventually won the part of the younger sister in Mia Chung's drama of escape from North Korea, "You for Me for You," which Company One staged earlier this year. But the dates conflicted with another show to which Perkinson was committed, so she was out of the running to play the older sister.
No problem. The leads in Company One's next show, Qui Nguyen's "She Kills Monsters," are sisters, too, and the sword-wielding girl on the theater's anime-inspired promotional art, created before the show was cast, even looks Asian. This time, both sisters got the parts they wanted in the show, now at the Boston Center for the Arts.
"We call it the world sister premiere," says Clark.
Nguyen confirms it's the first time real-life siblings have played the roles in a half-dozen productions of his play, which debuted at the Flea Theater in New York in 2011.
Growing up in San Antonio, the sisters had been in some of the same high school productions, but their characters never interacted onstage. Here they do.
"I thought it was going to be a lot stranger than it has been," Clark says. "I think we've reached a point in our actual relationship that we can successfully be in a show together and not feel like we're pulling in too much of that sister relationship."
Clark plays Tilly Evans, a geeky teenager who dies offstage in a car crash in the play's first scene. Perkinson plays Agnes, her decidedly un-geeky, 20-something older sister, who tries to understand Tilly by stepping into a Dungeons & Dragons realm that Tilly created.
Once she's in the game, she meets Tilly's alter ego, Tillius the Paladin, badass monster slayer. They get to know each other while battling assorted demons and bugbears under the direction of Dungeon Master Chuck. And of course the fictional sisters have some personal demons to face down.
"Working through this show has made me realize these characters are a lot braver than I was at that age," Clark says.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the swordplay and the monsters, the play is really a comedy. And one with a soft emotional center.
"I think that's the secret of why people like the Vampire Cowboys so much," says Nguyen, co-founder and co-artistic director of that off-off-Broadway troupe, which is known for its gonzo comic-book style in plays like "Alice in Slasherland" and "Soul Samurai."
"We do all this fantastical stuff with dragons and monsters and whatever, but the heart of it all is actually really traditional playwriting — characters and plot," he says by phone. "People get hooked into all the things that make us different than other theaters, but it's always about character and relationships. I'm really boring when it comes to that stuff, actually."
"She Kills Monsters" is especially close to Nguyen, who is originally from Arkansas.
"The heart of the play comes from the character of Chuck, because my closest friend when I was growing up was a kid named Chuck," Nguyen says. "And he actually passed away when I was 29 and he was 30. And I had lost contact with him when I graduated high school and went to college and went to New York and all that. And I found out on the opening night of my first off-Broadway show, 'Trial by Water,' that he had passed away, and I never got to talk to him or say thank you for all he had done in my life.
"There's a little line in the play about how [Agnes] only has memories of her sister as a little girl; she'll never have a chance to know her as an adult. And that's very much the heart of the play," he says.
Talking across a table at the BCA, the sisters say there was a time when they weren't close.
"She's my best friend now," says Perkinson. "So I find myself thinking back to when I was in high school and she was in middle school, because that's when the divide was greatest, at least from my side of things."
"I agree," Clark says.
"Agnes is kind of a detached big sister, much more detached than I was from Jordan's life," Perkinson says. "But Agnes has some words in the end of the play, 'I ignored her, I didn't know her, I didn't want to know her. I remember her as this little nerdy girl I shut out.' And there is some truth to that, when I think back to that time in our relationship. But, happily, I don't find that to be so truthful anymore."
While their mother is from South Korea, the sisters say they don't have a strong connection to their heritage (although "You for Me for You" stirred Clark's interest). Instead they were typical teens in their Texas hometown, "although we didn't really do the 'Friday Night Lights' thing. No football for us," Perkinson says. "We were theater geeks, arts geeks."
Despite the Company One illustration, there's nothing specifically Asian about Tilly and Agnes, which made their casting all the sweeter to the Clark sisters. They don't see why they shouldn't have the same roles as any non-Asian actresses. Clark: "We don't understand why we can't play, you know, a white man's wife. Because our mom is married to a white man."
It's an idea they know Nguyen supports strongly at Vampire Cowboys. "We always said our secret mission was one of aggressive diversity," the playwright says.
Their mother is flying in to see the play. Clark says she asked their father not to come, in part because she has a scene where Tilly kisses a girl.
"He can be easily scandalized," Perkinson says, as they both crack up. "I've been in plays where there's just some graphic language, and he's like, 'Ohhhh, I can't watch.' "
"We're still his babies. This would scar him for life!" Clark says. "Our mom's coming, and I think she will —"
"You know what she's going to say?" Perkinson interrupts, adopting a flat tone. "She'll say, 'It was fine. It was fine.' "
Clark: "She'll probably say, 'It was just like watching you in real life.' "