There have been quite a few monsters Americans have had to fight in the past two years, both seen and unseen. St. Ambrose University’s first big play of the school year has a fun time tackling other-worldly fantastical foes, in “She Kills Monsters.”
In this high-octane dramatic comedy laden with homicidal fairies, nasty ogres, and ’90s pop culture, acclaimed playwright Qui Nguyen offers a heart-pounding homage to the geek and warrior within us all. Performances at Galvin Fine Arts Center will be Friday, Nov. 12, and Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m., and
Sunday, Nov. 14, at 3 p.m., plus the following weekend at the same times.
SAU theater department chair Daniel Rairdin-Hale is director, puppet master and mask maker. “She Kills Monsters” is the first time ever that Ambrose has offered a production for two weekends, and they’re filling the stage with original puppets, masks and monsters.
“For a fun challenge, we’re doing our best to follow the actual scale of the monsters as described in the D&D game in our designs… so that means our fairy is a little 12-15 inch puppet and our beholder is huge (eight feet wide),” Rairdin-Hale said recently. “Kobolds are three-foot tall puppets (there are seven of them), and the actors playing the bug bears have to wear special steel rigs to increase their height and the broadness of their shoulders. It’s wild.”
“It’s the most ambitious project, as far as sheer numbers and sizes of masks and puppets, that I’ve worked on so far — but I wanted our first live mainstage show after the shutdown to be a big one,” he said. “For our first big mainstage production after everything closed for the pandemic, I wanted to do something really big and really fun. ‘She Kills Monsters’ is both.”
Rairdin-Hale and Aaron Hook (light designer, technical director and puppet designer) have designed and built puppets for the production.
“We’ve worked as a team on this kind of thing before, so it’s been fun to build off of everything we’ve learned in the past,” Rairdin-Hale said. “He’s been constructing the really big stuff in the shop. I also sculpt and paint masks and monster heads. Andrea Gross is our visiting costume designer for this production. She’s working with Cory Johnson as her costume technician as well as student workers.
“Andrea’s joining us from the Twin Cities and we’re very excited about the aesthetic she’s bringing to this fantastical production.,” he said. “It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours.”
Working with puppets for the show is so satisfying because masks and puppets provide a different way to connect with an audience, Rairdin-Hale said. “Despite the exaggeration in design, they often allow for a different kind of subtlety and honesty in performance that I enjoy.”
“In this production, it’s all about scale — our heroes battle three-foot-tall kobolds and eight-foot tall bugbears, and confront much, MUCH larger monsters as the show progresses,” he said. “Puppets allow us to extend the performers’ reach beyond their own size in order to embody much larger creatures.
“She Kills Monsters” is the tale of Agnes Evans, a young woman grieving the death of her little sister, Tilly. Agnes and Tilly were never the closest, but after Tilly’s death, Agnes wishes she knew more about her sister.
While cleaning her sister’s old room, she finds a notebook with a Dungeons & Dragons campaign laid out so she embarks on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign of Tilly’s own creation. Her party consists of a badass paladin, a demon queen, an elven goddess, and the Overlord of the Underworld. Their daunting quest is to save the Lost Soul of Athens.
Senior Becky Meissen plays Tilly and has loved the creative input that she has been allowed to incorporate throughout choreographing her fights, according to an SAU release.
“It is really cool being able to develop the way that Tilly would fight,” she said. “I get to put in these great moves that have really helped me develop my character.”
Rairdin-Hale (SAU class of ’04) said “the fights are very similar to dance,” so he has taken a unique approach. First and foremost, as a safety precaution, the actors have been directed to rarely have their weapons touch because safety is always the major concern with stage combat.
Even with all of the safety precautions that have been taken, the fights still look extremely realistic.
“The fights are solid because we run through them every rehearsal, and they continue to look better and better the more that we run them,” said senior K. Hampton. “I feel like a total bad-ass every time that I get to kill a monster.”