In “She Kills Monsters,” Rorschach Theatre boldly goes where a generation of dungeon masters has gone before, to tell the story of a young woman who, in losing herself in a game, reclaims a long-gone loved one.
Qui Nguyen’s agreeable comedy details the quest of Agnes Evans (Maggie Erwin), a high school teacher unable to quell her grief over her younger sister Tilly (Rebecca Hausman), who died at 15 in a car crash in which their parents were also killed. Finding the playbook Tilly created for her deep involvement in Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing game, Agnes persuades a sweaty, rumpled student, portrayed with nerdtastic brio by Robert Pike, to preside as dungeon master and allow Agnes belatedly to enter Tilly’s fantasy world.
While a pivotal question is not adequately answered — on what astral plane are Agnes and Tilly now communicating? — “She Kills Monsters” appealingly brings Dungeons & Dragons to life on a game board set by Ethan Sinnott that sprawls across one of the larger theaters in the Atlas Performing Arts Center complex. At the same time, the play affectionately name-drops TV shows and bands of the ’90s that were the background noise of Tilly’s adolescence. It has probably been a while since you’ve heard mention of “Quantum Leap” or listened to a recording of Beck singing “Loser.”
The production, directed with some clever touches by Randy Baker, is enveloped in a cheeky, pop-cultural nostalgia: It’s helpful if you were paying attention back then to “Twin Peaks” and the Smashing Pumpkins. More crucially, having some rudimentary familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons would be a help. Much of the show’s 100 minutes involve Agnes delving into the game as one of the warriors in Tilly’s retinue, engaging in a series of battles with various beasts and demons.
The myriad swordfights, choreographed by Casey Kaleba, tend to become repetitive. I was at the final preview performance of “She Kills Monsters,” and certainly the staging of these scenes will tighten as actors grow more confident in their moves. You can hope, too, that they’ll be encouraged to project at as forceful a volume as do the costumes by Debra Kim Sivigny. (One performer already adept at both the necessary physicality and bravado is Emma Lou Hebert as Farrah, a dainty-looking, balletic sprite who turns out to possess a killer instinct — and kick.)
Nguyen slyly integrates the terrors of high school into the story, courtesy of Tilly’s nemeses, a pair of mean girls (the well-matched Rachel Viele and Claire Aniela) who materialize in the adventures as cheerleaders from the dark side. The improvisatory aspect of the game is sent up smartly, too, in the funny contest that divides the good and evil teens into dueling combatants: a dance-off.
Erwin serves capably as the play’s emotional anchor. (Through no fault of Joshua Dick, who plays Agnes’s boyfriend, the story of their somewhat abrasive relationship feels a bit tacked on.) Among the actors assaying the game’s other denizens, Louis E. Davis gives an especially winning account of a player with no apparent love of adventure.
The affecting conclusion of “She Kills Monsters” affirms it as more than a glib riff on nerd culture. Agnes may have to become immersed in make-believe to connect with Tilly, but what she gains through all the shenanigans feels real.
By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Randy Baker. Fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; sound, Palmer Hefferan; set, Ethan Sinnott; lighting, Brian S. Allard; props, Britney Mongold. With Amanda Forstrom, Emily Kester, Tori Boutin, Seth Rosenke. About 1 hour and 40 minutes. Tickets, $20-$30. Through Sept. 14 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-452-8497 or visit www.rorschachtheatre.com.