NORMAL — No monster is scarier than the ones we routinely encounter in real life.
In "She Kills Monsters," the ambitious Illinois State University Theatre production opening this Halloween weekend, the demons of hate, bigotry, bullying and intolerance — no strangers to anyone these days — take an allegorical drubbing.
But not before some monumental challenges have been faced and some scary battles have been spectacularly fought, both on terra firma and in the air.
"It has a ton of monsters and flying fairies and evil succubi," offers the show's director, Paul Dennhardt, whose faculty role as professor of acting and movement at ISU is being put to the test.
"But, more than anything, it is a fantasy allegory ... a metaphorical journey of discovery," he adds of playwright Qui Nguyen's quasi-autobiographical meditation on the triumph over banal daily evil through the power of imagination and mythic storytelling.
In this case, storytelling is pitched on a technically grand scale, involving everything from aerial battles to giant five-headed dragons ... with plenty more on the side: dance-based smackdowns, evil succubi cheerleaders and puppets gone wild.
So huge are the technical demands for the show that an outside company, Vertigo Flying Effects, has been hired to rig the CPA stage and the actors for the complex wire work.
Equally demanding are the puppetry components, which are being overseen by guest artists Cheryl Capezzuti, a Pittsburgh-based sculptor, painter and puppet maker specializing in large pageantry and parade puppets; and Allison (Tobi) Daniels, a puppet/movement artist who taught the actors how to bring the puppets to life on stage.
And though he is a professor of acting and movement, Dennhardt has ceded the fight choreography to longtime associate John Tovar, who began his ISU association as an undergrad in the late ’90s and is now back as a graduate student studying in the MFA directing program.
"It's one of the bigger challenges I've faced," admits Tovar, a fight choreography veteran, both locally (via the Illinois Shakespeare Festival) and elsewhere.
"We have a lot of young actors that don't necessarily have experience in terms of fighting or aerial work," he adds.
"That's definitely a challenge. What I've loved about this is the students' passions ring through strong. They're determined to create the best production that we can. And they are definitely rising to the occasion.
Set in 1995, "She Kills Monsters" follows the Athens, Ohio, odyssey of one Agnes Evans, a young woman who loses her entire family in a tragic car accident, including her teen sister Tilly, who, because of their five-year age difference, she never really got to know.
Agnes' pathway to finding out who Tilly was is opened up after she comes across a Dungeons & Dragons map among Tilly's possessions. Agnes decides to play the game as a means of gaining knowledge.
"Through playing the game," says Dennhardt, "she learns that her sister was a closeted 15-year-old lesbian who was bullied at school, and who was in love with another girl who was either straight or also closeted."
Agnes' ensuing D&D-assisted journey allows her to enter a role-playing fantasy realm where the monsters of Tilly's real life — the homophobic schoolmates, the hateful cheerleaders, the boorish football players, etc. — become the five-headed dragons and fearful ogres she must defeat.
Even so, they have been costumed in a way that never hides their origins, from pads and helmets adorning the football player monsters to rah-rah attire for the evil cheerleader succubi.
"Through this journey, Agnes discovers the sister she never knew in life, and through that process, breaks out of her own average, ordinary life and discovers a world of her own," adds Dennhardt.
Though the entertaining visual/visceral fantasy spectacle is very much a part of "She Kills Monsters," it is all administered strictly in the service of the larger allegorical themes, Dennhardt says.
"That's what drew me to this play: This story about intolerance and homophobia and bullying that often ends in tragic circumstances in real life, be it suicide, depression or mental illness.
"Hopefully, it will provide the opportunity to create a dialogue and the potential for learning about the consequences of these things and the human impact it has on people."