WASHINGTON -- High school hallways sometimes feel like a labyrinth of discomfort. Between fearsome bullies and awkward teachers, nerds can have a pretty hard time in their teen years.
Those daily struggles lead 15-year-old Tilly Evans to the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
There, she escapes to a world of her own creation, where the normally shy teen is a powerful warrior battling evil fairies, succubi -- who look suspiciously like those mean cheerleaders -- and gelatinous cubes.
This is how her 25-year-old sister, Agnes, comes to know Tilly after the younger girl's sudden death. Agnes, a sensible and grounded teacher at Tilly's old school, stumbles upon her little sister's D&D playbook and decides to follow her sibling through a whirlwind adventure.
The relationship between the disparate characters forms the meat of Oui Nguyen's "She Kills Monsters," now playing at Northeast D.C.'s Rorschach Theatre.
"Even though this play is absolutely a comedy ... at its heart, this is a very serious story," says director Randy Baker.
"It's the story of a person losing her younger sister to a terrible and untimely tragedy and what it means to move on with her life. That is a tough thing to explore."
The otherwise morose subject is made easier to digest thanks to the charming cast of eccentric characters. Lillith is a warrior princess in the Xena tradition, complete with leather bodice and little else. Kalliope is a a dark elf with the emotional capacity of a Vulcan. And then there's Orcus, a lazy yet lovable demon who joins the side of a good and really enjoys Twizzlers.
It's this kind of effortless chemistry that makes "She Kills Monsters" a "deceptively breezy and rather ingenious comedy."
Baker, a former D&D fan, says the game's collaborative nature is what makes Dungeons & Dragons, and "She Kills Monsters," so addictive.
"Role-playing games are a unique form of entertainment," he says.
"There is no board and the adventures are collaborative, much in the same way as theater. There are rules, but they are not as prescribed. And there is an ongoing adventure, but it is built together as a community."
Despite the overt references to role playing, Nguyen's play isn't just for D&D geeks.
"The audience doesn't need to know the difference between an orc and a kobold," choreographer Casey Kaleba tells DC Theatre Scene.
"The core of the story is something that's very relatable and very understandable. It just happens to exist in a world of dragons. But you don't need to know the rules coming in."
If you don't know the rules, the folks over at Rorschach Theatre are happy to assist. Character sheets await at the entrance for theatergoers who want to deepen their knowledge of D&D. And the stage isn't really a stage at all. Instead, the center of the room is transformed into a makeshift game board that looks like something Harry Potter would play.
"There are fights that are deeply metaphorical," Baker says of the onstage action.
"Tilly is bullied in school, so the bullies are turned into evil succubi cheerleaders. She's not able to defeat them because there is something deeply psychological and damaging about these creatures."
But the journey isn't Tilly's. She has already died when the play starts, and it's Agnes who must embark on an unexpected adventure to finally get to know her sibling.
The intersection where fantasy and reality meet challenges the viewer to betray a natural urge to mourn Tilly. Because she is immortalized through her playbook, Agnes can visit her anytime. She gets a chance so few of us have in real life.
"This play isn't about wallowing in sadness," Baker says. "It's about [Agnes] discovering what her sister loved and, in doing so, learning to love again."
See "She Kills Monsters" at the Rorschach Theatre through Sept. 14. Buy tickets here.
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