Adolescence can be rough — and that’s at the heart of Illinois State University's production of “She Kills Monsters,” a story told on two levels.

The young heroine does battle with the bullies who stalk her high school hallways and the like-minded monsters that populate a gaming scenario of her own creation.

Paul Dennhardt directs this visually stunning production that’s full of surprises.

Tilly Evans (a terrific Spencer Brady) is a picked-on Ohio teenager who has taken refuge in the role-playing world. We learn in the prologue that Tilly has died, at age 15, in a car accident.

Her older sister, Agnes (a practical Johanna Kerber), is a teacher at Tilly’s school. Agnes enters the gaming module Tilly created in an effort to finally understand and connect with her younger sister.

“She Kills Monsters,” written by Qui Nguyen, bounces back and forth between light comedic banter and sword fighting with deadly monsters (terrific fight direction by John Tovar).

Occasionally the actors’ lines are hard to hear but the visuals carry the day.

Several characters are rigged to fly and there are some enormous, menacing puppets. The scene in which Agnes battles a five-headed dragon is thrilling.

Among those flying and cavorting above the stage are foul-mouthed Farrah the Faerie (Angie Milton) and Evil Gabbi /Evil Tina (Chloe Szot and Autumn Egger), a pair of mean-girl cheerleaders out of your worst nightmare.

You remember these girls, sweet as pie around teachers, vicious when it suits them.

Jacob Artner plays Steve, the quintessential geek, in this tale set in a time before geeks ruled the world. He’s wonderful.

Much credit for keeping things humming goes to scenic designer John C. Stark, who has created a set that quickly morphs back and forth between the worlds of high school lockers and a dark and dangerous underworld.

Lighting designer Dan Ozminkowski works his own magic to enhance and enrich both worlds.

“She Kills Monsters” is, befittingly, a bit of a shape-shifter.

When someone gets their heart torn out, it’s both funny and over-the-top grisly.

When we see the intolerance Tilly tries to cope with, and when we finally meet her real-life friends, it’s heart-wrenchingly real.

(Note: Though the play is suggested as suitable for middle school age and older, it contains strong language and mature themes.)

Brokaw is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.

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