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She Kills Monsters injects Dungeons & Dragons with humor and lots of heart

She Kills Monsters brings a fantasy realm to a black box. Photo credit: Clickery Photography

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I began playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was around 10 years old. My first Dungeon Master was my dad, who himself started playing the game near its inception in the late ‘70s. My fellow campaign members were my brother and our friends, and we enjoyed low-level escapism in a way that allowed for creative exploration in a world of strict, yet semi-malleable rules: certain allowances were made for bending protocol when you were attempting something awesome. Recently, I joined my brother's role-playing campaign, where he is in charge of the adventure.

I've tried putting my finger on why D&D is so effective as a metaphor for all sorts of interpersonal relationships, whether it's in an episode of the late, great Community, or in She Kills Monsters, a 2013 play about an older sister finally learning about her younger sister's private life through exploring her notebooks after her death in a car crash. As She Kills Monsters illustrates, you can sometimes learn less about a person through reading their diary than by exploring a fictional world that they've created for themselves.

As presented by the new Tacoma Actors Repertory Theatre (TART), She Kills Monsters is clearly a labor of love; director Jen Tidwell told us as much in the preface to the show, when she laid out her reasons for staging such an ambitious production in the modest means of TART's current home in the lower level of the Tacoma Armory. Likewise, the actors gave us their all in a show that is chock-full of moving parts, never phoning it in for what was a sparsely attended performance for the fledgling theater company.

Written by Qui Nguyen, She Kills Monsters concerns Agnes (Kathryn Philbrook), a teacher in 1995 Ohio, whose several-years-younger sister, Tilly (Katherine Mahoney), died suddenly in a car wreck, along with her's and Agnes' parents. Given their age difference and generally incompatible personalities, Agnes knew very little about Tilly. When she finds a D&D adventure written by Tilly, Agnes brings it to local nerd Chuck (Nikolai Mell, who impressively navigates what starts as a comic relief role into a remarkably affecting performance).

Agnes begins playing D&D. With Chuck as her Dungeon Master, she explores realms of fantasy and finds out just how little she knew about Tilly. Along the way are the apparition of Tilly, as well as the characters she created, performed winningly by Kylie McKenzie Soder, Sara Schweid, and Paul Dederick. Along the way, secrets are revealed, and Agnes struggles to cope not only with her loss, but with her own direction in life. Some of the best D&D in-jokes are best left for you to discover, but let it be known that a gelatinous cube makes an appearance.

She Kills Monsters, as produced by TART (with charmingly lo-fi fight sequences designed by Kendra Pierce), is a wonderfully delightful show, which becomes unexpectedly emotional as the play moves along. Every performer gives it their all, with several actors playing multiple parts and helping to keep the show's many gears moving. The ingenuity with which the crew tackles dynamic stage effects is impressive, and I don't mind admitting to you that I laughed and cried at a play about Dungeons & Dragons.

She Kills Monsters, Fridays and Saturdays through April 3, 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m., $25 GA, $22.50 Student/Senior, Tacoma Actors Repertory Theatre, 715 S. 11th St., Tacoma, 253.353.2282

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