In “On Fairy-Stories,” his seminal essay on the healing properties of fantasy literature, J. R. R. Tolkien took on the critics of his day who derided and marginalized the genre as escapism. “I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used,” he wrote. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”
For the generations who grew up on the works of Tolkien and the other “subcreators” of alternative worlds whom he influenced, the desire to escape intolerable real-life circumstances for a brief period while reading a book, watching a movie or playing an RPG is often as much an incentive as the entertainment value of the work itself. Spend enough time talking with gamer geeks and speculative fiction fans and you’re likely to begin hearing stories about dysfunctional families, child abuse, social ostracism and bullying, neurodivergence, gender and other identity issues. Some troubled people self-medicate through substance abuse; many fantasy geeks find another path to pain relief, perhaps just as addictive but taking less toll on the body. The doorway to any library is a portal into what Discworld author Terry Pratchett called “L-space,” a pandimensional realm that readers can use to go anywhere the imagination allows, when the real world becomes too hard a place to endure.
The existence of this therapeutic subculture forms the framework for She Kills Monsters, a comedy/drama by Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen. The adult protagonist, Agnes Evans, loses her family, including her teenaged sister Tilly, in an auto accident. The sisters had never been close, being far apart in age and interested in completely different things. Tilly had a passion for everything nerdy/geeky and a special love for the game Dungeons and Dragons. As Agnes is packing up the contents of the family home, she finds a module Tilly had written for D&D, transmuting her high school friends into allies on her Hero’s Journey and her tormentors into monsters. Agnes decides to seek out the help of a Dungeon Master to play the game as her sister designed; as she delves into her quest, the fantasy world and reality begin to collide and mix as she realizes how much of her sister she never knew.
She Kills Monsters premiered Off-Off-Broadway in 2011 via the Bats, the resident company of the Flea Theater in New York City (Raúl Sigmund Juliá, son of the late distinguished actor Raúl Juliá, originated the role of Orcus, a demonic mentor character). Two years later, it was picked up by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. And now it’s being staged by the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz, under the direction of Michael Barakiva, artistic director of Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre. “I have been dying to direct this play since I saw the premiere in New York City all those many years ago,” says Barakiva. “Before gaming was cool, before geeks were in, before a d20 was a fashionable accessory, Qui wrote this action-packed queer fantasia as an homage to all of us for whom games were an escape from reality.”
She Kills Monsters opens in the McKenna Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus on Thursday, February 27 and runs until March 8, with evening performances beginning at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday matinées. Tickets cost $18 general admission, $16 for seniors (62+), SUNY-New Paltz faculty, staff and alumni and non-SUNY New Paltz students and $10 for SUNY-New Paltz students. To purchase, contact the Parker Theatre Box Office at (845) 257-3880 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.newpaltz.edu/fpa/boxoffice.html.