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Story by Stephen Wilson, photos by Brandon Marin ’22

Following a tragedy we all want to understand the “why” and begin a search for meaning.

Those searches don’t usually mean sword battles with evil succubi en route to defeat a five-headed dragon.

But they do if you are involved in geek theater plays working to transform the idea of what being a geek means.

Student who plays Agnes talks to a student who is her dungeon masterShe Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen epitomizes geek. Set in 1995 in the world of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the play follows Agnes, high school teacher in Ohio, as she copes with the sudden deaths of her mother, father, and sister Tilly in an auto accident. She and Tilly had little in common, so Agnes’ quest takes her into Tilly’s world of D&D, where she learns both more about her sister and how to wield a sword.

Sunday’s afternoon rehearsal is less about running lines and blocking stage movement. It’s full-on combat training.

Fight choreographer Brad Lemons is helping the cast learn how to hold a weapon, carry it, synchronize movements with combat partners, and stay safe.

Agnes, Tilly, and their band of elves and demons are standing center stage at the peak of a triangle. From behind them and upstage left and right, monsters are flooding in.

A group of actors stand in formation prepared for battle as they hold weapons Each fighter slowly moves through a dance, precise steps that include lunges, turns, ducking, and swinging. They are making eye contact, locking the motions into muscle memory, and releasing with sound.

Combat is a story, and that story is about it looking and sounding real.

The cast is grunting as they take a blow and screaming as they swing.

They run it over and over, speeding up and refining as they go.

Student playing Agnes battles a character in the D&D game who is played by her boyfriend“We have broken the maces several times,” says Jules Holzmann ’19. As stage manager, she is running rehearsal today. Once the play opens, she will run the entire show—costumes, props, and light and sound cues.

Since the show has so many combat scenes, entire rehearsals have been dedicated to battle sequences.

“It’s part of what makes it such a fun show,” she says. “But there are deeper themes.”

Mary Jo Lodge, director of the play and associate professor of theater, loves female action heroes. She lists Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Princess Leia as favorites. Little contemporary or classical theater, however, combines any kind of action with  combat, at least for female characters.

“This is such a great opportunity for female leads to be unapologetic for being powerful,” she says.

That’s why so many people auditioned. The play attracted students who wanted to play those parts.

“Real weapons, sword fights, primal noises, and uninhibited freedom … that’s a bad-ass combination,” says Lodge.

A young woman poses by holding a staffThe story is less clear when considering the quintessential theater masks of comedy or tragedy.

“Agnes is coming to terms with her sister’s death and over the course of that journey, better understands her sister,” she says.

Understanding is a loaded word as Agnes bonds with Tilly, discovers she is a lesbian, uncovers how Tilly was bullied when she was alive, and finally meets the cohort of friends who loved her just as she was.

Actress playing Tilly stands on a dark stage where she is silhouetted by a light“What’s hard for Agnes is how deeply she comes to know her sister, but in the end, Tilly is still gone,” says Lodge. “It’s still a profound loss, but the story makes clear that there is still hope, and Tilly will not be forgotten.”

This mix of heart and brawn attracted Paris Doherty ’21 to the role of Tilly.

Her dedicated weapon in the show, which she loves, is a katana, a curved sword associated with samurai. While she has been exhausted and bruised from the rehearsals, she’s found the show empowering.

“I have experienced bullying,” she says. “What we see in the show is more extreme, but I can understand how hard it is to have a weakness exposed.”

Two evil cheerleaders mock the two sisters Tilly and Agnes as they lie on the ground defeated in battleDoherty thinks classmates and audience members will relate to the story with hope.

“We all have had to fake it until we make it,” she says. “We learn to hold our heads up high, put on your favorite shirt, and do the things you love without compromise. True friends along the way hype you up.”

Hype helps. A posse of sword-carrying D&D role players helps too.

The actress playing Agnes stands in blue light holding a sword

View the full album of photos on Flickr.

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