It’s rare that a play can move you to tears after multiple readings, but “She Kills Monsters,” one of two productions the Tonicism youth theatre troupe will perform this summer, is a coming-of-age story of depth and power, dealing with profound loss on the road to discovery and acceptance.
Too heavy for children?
Not the children I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the years, first at the Spotlight Theatre and now at Tonicism, which starts its 2017 summer classes at The Empty Space on July 10.
In addition to “She Kills Monsters,” we will mount a production of “The Lion King,” based on the Broadway musical, a more joyous, exuberant celebration of African culture than the beloved 1994 Disney animated movie on which the musical is based.
“The Lion King” is the only show I’ve ever seen on Broadway, and it was breathtaking in scope and grandeur, while maintaining its uplifting circle-of-life message. I hope to transfer some of the magic I saw in New York to the Bakersfield stage.
While “The Lion King” is familiar to most families, I believe our production of “She Kills Monsters” will be the first in Bakersfield. The story centers on Agnes, a popular cheerleader who loses her younger sister, Tilly, in a car accident.
The tragedy triggers a quest by Agnes to learn more about Tilly, a “geek” who sought refuge from the cruelty of classmates in fantasy games like “Dungeons & Dragons.”
As she gets to know Tilly’s friends and begins playing the game, Agnes’ boyfriend, a cool jock, becomes jealous and threatened, leading Agnes to question his motives and character.
Though geekiness is not only accepted but celebrated today, it wasn’t that way in the 1990s, the pre-Facebook era when the play is set.
Back then, cliques were iron-clad social structures and if you could recite more than three lines from the “Star Wars” franchise, you risked being bullied. And so Agnes’ exploration of her sister’s life takes some courage.
But the play also challenges us to question our own biases about “popular” kids like Agnes and her boyfriend.
At Tonicism, we pride ourselves on treating our young performers with respect, which means presenting them with sometimes complex material. We’ve done versions of serious fare like “Les Miserables,” “School of Rock” and “Geeks Vs. Zombies.”
But “She Kills Monsters” is the rare piece that will make children think, and feel.
If it were a movie, I’d give it a PG-13 rating, but that doesn’t mean it’s not for all children (our kids range in age from 5 to 18).
The point of theater is to help us learn and grow and though there is sadness, the story is really about one girl’s moving attempt to truly know her sister.
But what she discovers about herself is just as profound.
Guinevere PH Dethlefson is a founder of Tonicism.