A Monster Mash-Up
As he prepares to direct ‘She Kills Monsters’ at STAGEStheatre, Shinshin Yuder Tsai finds inspiration in the works of its playwright, Qui Nguyen, well known to SCR audiences for ‘Vietgone’ and ‘Poor Yella Rednecks.’
By Joel Beers
The first time Shinshin Yuder Tsai watched a person get killed it came courtesy of an orange to the forehead.
It was an acting exercise on the first day of his first high school theater class. Without a word of set up, the teacher stood in the front of the class holding an orange. He motioned another student to approach, and then handed him the orange, said he could do with it what he wanted, and then knelt on the floor.
“That was it,” Tsai recollects. “For like five minutes, the kid just stood there, not knowing what to do. He’s looking at the rest of the class and we don’t know what to tell him. Finally, he shrugs and touches the orange to the teacher’s forehead.”
The teacher slumped to the ground, motionless for about 10 seconds. Rising to his feet and taking back the orange, he said something to the effect, Tsai remembers, of: “I hope you never find it so easy to kill a person again.”
Then he walked to his desk, sat down, and stayed silent the rest of the period.
“I was dumbfounded,” Tsai recalls. “I didn’t know what it meant, what it was about. But I thought, ‘if this is theater, I want to know what this is. I want to be a part of it.’”
A seed was planted, and some 10 years later, Tsai is doing some killing of his own, directing the genre mashup “She Kills Monsters,” at Stages Theatre, which opens Feb. 28. It’s by Qui Nguyen, a playwright as hot as any in the country, and one familiar to O.C. theater audiences, as South Coast Repertory helped develop two of his plays, “Vietgone” in 2015 and “Poor Yella Rednecks” last year.
But long before his breakout “Viegtone,” Nguyen was already known in off-Broadway New York theater. He was the driving writing force behind Vampire Cowboys, an OBIE-Award winning self-christened “geek theatre” company that mashed theatrical conventions like strong characters and stage combat, with genres like comics and sci-fi/fantasy movies. It was all layered in ubiquitous pop culture references, creating plays like the Shakespearean zombie romp “Living Dead in Denmark,” and “Souls Samurai – a blackploitation thriller set in postapocalyptic Brooklyn.
Tsai wasn’t aware of that when he saw his first Nguyen play, the aforementioned “Vietgone.” It came at a fortuitous period for him, as he was about to graduate with his theater degree from UCI and embark into a world where he hoped to find acting or directing work, but where nothing was guaranteed.
“Vietgone” reminded him of why theater had touched him (that orange of unlimited possibilities); it also reinforced his belief that voices like his could, and should, be heard.
“I was blown away by how funny and refreshing and how very vibrant it was but also how unabashedly American it was and how Asian-American it was,” he said. “I had to find out who he was and I read a bunch of his work and grew to respect him both for his writing and his commitment to giving people of color an opportunity to create and express their voices.”
Set in 1995, a time when so-called geek culture hadn’t yet conquered the world through the MCU and Facebook, “She Kills Monsters” is framed around “Dungeons and Dragons,” the tabletop role-playing game that launched in 1974 and would greatly influence some of the most popular computer and console games (“World of Warcraft” would not have existed without D&D).
In the play, the character of Agnes, average in every way, must return home to deal with the death of her family in a car crash, including her younger sister, Tilly (yes, it’s a comedy, but with some darker aspects). Agnes discovers that Tilly, who she knew little about, was an avid D&D player who had written an entire campaign. With the help of a dungeon master, Agnes begins playing the campaign and is swept into an alternative reality (or is she?) where Tilly’s character lives alongside sexy elves, demonic succubi, and dragons.
But while gamers and ’90s nerds-turned-master-of-the-universe (can’t you just feel Zuckerberg’s eyes on you right now?) can certainly appreciate the nostalgia and shout-outs, there is more going on in Nguyen’s play than a Scott Pilgrimish shift from reality into fantasy. The script also has a great deal of heart, as Agnes’ desire to know more about her sister leads to discovering more about herself. It’s also very inclusive, with one character in D&D world in a wheelchair in the real world, and lesbian characters depicted with strength and humor, not just fretting about their sexuality or serving as token caricatures.
“If you asked someone the first play they think of when it comes to nerds or geeks, they’re probably going to say this one,” Tsai said. “It was really groundbreaking for its time. But to also include a conversation about how people treat and view members of the LBGTQIA community,” elevates it even further.
As does the fact that a play as unconventional and freewheeling as this one also serves as an of umbrella of solidarity for all the once-scorned dice-rolling players, and anyone who ever felt they had to hide who they truly were, or were made to feel they were less than 100 percent “whole.”
So while audience members might come for the stage combat and 1990s music, Tsai hopes they leave with a reminder “that you can celebrate what you love unabashedly, and that someone who isn’t part of the conversation in 2020 of being more accepting of other people’s sexuality, or hobbies, [or differences] might think about joining it.”
‘She Kills Monsters’
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
StagesTheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton
Feb. 28-March 21. Fri-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.