Xena. Britney Spears. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The creme de la creme of '90s pop culture. And, it just so happens, inspirational launching pads for elaborate battle gear. Add some swords, an ax, a few shoulder pads accented with spikes, and you've got yourself one well-outfitted warrior.
But what kind of battle would call for such soldiers? That's the question Flowertown Underground tackles in their mainstage production of Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters. Nguyen's story is a delightful mashup of nerd culture and girl power, a reconciliation between stark tragedy and silver linings, a simple tale of an orphaned young woman seeking solace in the memories of her kid sister.
"It's not a very old show ... it's going to test our audience a little bit," says Flowertown Players' executive director Courtney Bates. The contemporary, often quirky play centers on the geeky cult fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons.
When protagonist Agnes Evans' entire family is killed in a car crash, she goes back to her childhood home and discovers that her teenage sister, Tilly, was an avid participant in the game. Enlisting the help of a "dungeon master," Agnes delves into the world in which Tilly thrived, setting aside her preconceived notions of her little sister in hopes of forming a post mortem connection, and understanding.
To set the mid-nineties Dungeons and Dragons scene, Flowertown Underground costume steward Nicole Harrison worked outside of her comfort zone to create elaborate battle garments. "A lot of people know me for my Victorian [work] ... this is a little out of my wheelhouse. It's been a fun challenge."
Harrison said she researched '90s sitcoms and pop culture (i.e. Xena and Ms. Spears) as well as games like Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. "I was coming from it as this was Tilly's refuge," says Harrison of her creative approach. "I borrowed the script and read a week and half; I got to know a little bit about each character as well as the relationship between Tilly and Agnes." This was Harrison's first time building armor, and she had to be cognizant of the way the actors would move in their clothes. "I used a lot of lycra and dancewear ... I had to make sure nothing was going to rip or tear."
Harrison, who says she has been involved with theater since she was four, was going to be a theater education major then switched to technical design. She started with scene work, then switched to costume. "A lot of it is imaginary ... I tried to keep that in mind especially with Tilly and her module and her journal. When I get in production I look at other designers but I like to put my own spin on it."
In addition to the wardrobe, to make this imaginative world an immersive reality, the devil was all in the details. "This is a full package show," says Bates. "I don't think you'll get the full effect of the show without the technical aspect. It is a big challenge ... our set is very cavernous, you're going to feel like you're in a cave setting. [The set] is made of papier-mâché, a material that isn't used often. You have to think outside of the box."
Director Josh Bates says, whether he likes it or not, he is now a master of mâché. "When we built the bones of the set I thought 'oh it will be really easy' but ... it's like 75 percent glue and flour and cornstarch." And that's just the foundation. After establishing a convincingly cavernous milieu, Josh had to choreograph fight scenes. It is Dungeons and Dragons, after all.
Although Josh had some experience with fight choreogaphy, for the majority of the cast it was trial by fire. "Some had dance backgrounds, so that helped with the tempo and pace, but most had very little experience," he says. All of the fight scenes, which are being played out in the world of D&D, involve a whole lotta female kick-assery. "What really drew me to the show," says Josh, "is that I was tired of females being the costar. Or they were madly in love or their husbands broke up with them. It's [She Kills Monsters] just a story about women kicking ass. And it has a reason. It's not overt. I wanted to give that back to female actresses I've worked with locally."
Bates concurs, saying she was also drawn to this production for its strong female figures. "There's no normal storyline where a man on a white horse saves the woman. This story is of grief. But it's also a story of how she [Agnes] is able to cope with that. And how she is able to do this on her own."