The world of fantasy might be full of fairies, monsters, wizards and other creatures, but at its heart, any story in that magical realm is about the characters who inhabit it. Characters who, besides the horns, wings and wands, are more like the people we know than we realize.
In "She Kills Monsters," now showing at The Empty Space, Agnes Evans reconnects with her late sister, Tilly, who left behind a "Dungeons & Dragons" module after dying in a car crash that also killed their parents. Though Agnes didn't share Tilly's love for the role-playing game, she plays her sister's module and is transported to a world of Tilly's making.
"While the story deals with some heavy themes, there are plenty of lighter, comedic and exciting moments throughout," said Kayleigh Peaker, the play's director.
Agnes, who Peaker described as a "painfully average woman," never really knew her kid sister before her death. Tilly (Stevie McNabb) was a geeky teenager and Agnes (Claire Rock) didn't get her. With Tilly's game the only way to get to know her sister better, Agnes enlists Tilly's friend Chuck (Thor Reese) to help her on her quest.
The play, written by Qui Nguyen and first debuting in 2011, has been performed in Bakersfield before. Peaker was first introduced to it while working for Tonicism Productions, which offers children’s theater workshops and produced the "Young Adventurer’s" version of the play in 2017.
"I fell in love with it then and have been wanting to attempt the adult version since," Peaker said.
The play already had a special spot in her heart, Peaker said, but it became more poignant after the death of a close friend in November.
"My life began to imitate this art piece because the friend I had lost was also into 'Dungeons & Dragons,' and I hadn’t known until after he left us," she said. "So after he passed, I was lucky enough to receive a copy of one of his character sheets for the game and have been playing a character based on his creation."
With a play about fantasy, the set design, costuming and fight scenes have to be fantastic. Peaker's father, Kevin Peaker, is the production's weapons master, while he and his daughter have been working together on creature concept and design, along with Karen Peaker and Michelle Guerrero. Matthew Borton is the play's fight choreographer.
"There are quite a few different creatures in this play," Peaker said. "We have several generic monsters, a Faerie Berzerker, a flesh-eating Jello mold, a barbarian doppleganger, succubi cheerleaders and a five-headed dragon."
Work on various creatures and weapons started in January, with Kevin Peaker helping to build structures for some of the less humanoid monsters.
The set is designed and created by Jay Ignacio and has a castle background with different "Dungeons & Dragons" scenes in its windows, plus some creatures. The game will also take over the floor of the stage.
"I always planned to have the floor look like a 'Dungeons & Dragons' battle mat, which is basically a grid that you can put your characters and other structures on to visually see the area and villains you are battling," Peaker said.
This is Peaker's first production that she's directing by herself, she said. She co-directed "The Women" with Ron Warren at The Empty Space in 2014 and "Of Mice and Men" at the same theater in 2017 with Bob Kempf. With the Tonicism workshops, she regularly has three other directors.
"Although I have a huge team of designers and operators, the pressure to make the final decision without leaning over to a partner and getting their final approval has been challenging," she said. "The biggest lesson I’m learning throughout this process is to trust myself. I’ve actually been doing this for years and I’m going to tell this story appropriately."
During the play's run, guests can enjoy themed cocktails, for $5 each. The Goblin Tonic is described as a woodsy take on the traditional gin and tonic, with rosemary, simple syrup and fresh lemon juice. The Lady Dragon is a tart and tangy lemonade, with sweet dragon fruit and mango juices, plus vodka. The Paladin Paloma is sweet, sour, salty and spicy, with grapefruit and lime juices, tequila, a splash of club soda and a chili-salt rim.
Peaker said people should check out "She Kills Monsers" because everyone needs an escape from reality sometimes. For the characters in the play, that escape comes from the game, but for the people of Bakersfield, the play itself can be that escape.
"I feel like people can relate to the different situations happening within the storyline," she said. "In life we all have our highs, lows and adventures and we can see ourselves in these characters and how they deal with life and loss."
The play's message is not unlike one of the many in the "Harry Potter" books and movies, with Peaker referencing a quote from that series' third installment: "The ones who love us never really leave us."
"This is actually my favorite quote from Sirius Black in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' but I think it rings true in She Kills Monsters as well," she said. "Whether we are close to the one we lost or feel like we didn’t understand them, the best way to honor them is to continue to create your own adventures and live your life to the fullest."
Loss is something anyone can relate to, in real life and in fantasy.
"Grief is hard. It’s the fiercest monster we encounter and it comes for everyone and in many different forms. Some days it feels like we could lose the battle, but if you surround yourself with fierce warriors they can help you fight that darkness and find the light."