In any normal year, the first theatre production of UVU’s academic season would be met with a packed house, patrons waiting with bated breath for the curtains to open. Cast members would be checking makeup and costumes one last time while the stage manager ensured all props and set pieces were in place. Finally, the audience chatter would slowly fade out and the show would begin.
Instead — as this is anything but a normal year — UVU’s production of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” will open this week in perhaps the most appropriate format — Zoom.
Written by Qui Nguyen, “She Kills Monsters” tells the story of Agnes Evans, a senior high school cheerleader who lost both parents and her little sister, Tilly, in a car accident a year before. Although the two didn’t connect much in life, Agnes finds a Dungeons and Dragons module — or story — written by Tilly and begins to discover who her sister really was by exploring the fantasy world she created.
After discovering Tilly’s module, Agnes connects with Chuck, who presided over games of Dungeons and Dragons as the dungeon master. At Chuck’s urging, Agnes enters the role-playing game herself, where she is introduced to the avatars of Tilly’s friends, and Tilly herself.
I had no idea what to expect as I logged on to the Zoom lobby, where a dress rehearsal of sorts would be tested one last time before opening night. Rather than filming the production live on stage, each actor was filmed in front of a green screen — which allowed stage designers to add a virtual set behind each performer.
The story takes place across two primary locations, Agnes’ real life was set at Athens High School, while her escapades in Dungeons and Dragons played out in front of fantastical landscapes. When set in the high school, the backdrop was modeled after a MacBook’s desktop, all of Agnes’ interactions playing out virtually in pop-up chat windows.
It wasn’t just the cast and crew who were forced to adjust to the realities of the coronavirus, Nguyen himself scrambled over the past few months to edit the script to allow for it to be performed in a virtual manner. More than 60 percent of the script was altered in some way, forcing performers to learn new lines leading up to the performance.
As clever as these adjustments were, it is difficult to replicate the energy that comes from seeing a live performance. Having each actor filmed in front of their own green screen limited the interaction and gave the performers few opportunities to really work off of one another.
Still, the success of such a performance rests solely in the hands of the actors and this cast did not let me down. Sonja Hugo and Hallie Purser — as Agnes and Tilly, respectively — managed to elevate their scenes together, their emotional connection felt grounded, despite the obstacles presented. Zachary Ballard, who played Agnes’ boyfriend Miles, brought a great deal of levity to his performance and pulled off what must have been difficult moments of comedic timing.
Despite its often somber tone, “She Kills Monsters” doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly self-serious and the cast leans into the charm and whimsy evident in Nguyen’s writing. In addition to dealing with loss and grief, it centers around empathy and acceptance for its LGBTQ characters. While it looks and feels unlike anything performed at UVU, its uniqueness only added to its appeal without sacrificing much in terms of tenderness and heart. Stage productions have always been about finding creative solutions to problems, and by that standard, “She Kills Monsters” more than measures up.
“She Kills Monsters” will have online streams available Wednesday, Oct. 14 through Friday, Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m. MT. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Bridger Beal-Cvetko is a junior at Utah Valley University where he is studying journalism. He has been with The Review since 2019, where he has covered the UVU men’s basketball team and the softball team before becoming the Sports/Valley Life Editor. Bridger also covers the BYU football and basketball teams as a writing and producing intern for ESPN 960 Sports on KOVO 960 and espn960sports.com. Aside from sports, Bridger is an ardent cinephile, and writes reviews and commentary on films for his personal website.