PennWest California’s University Players will roll for initiative as they present “She Kills Monsters,” a drama-comedy play written by Qui Nguyen that uses the famous tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to explore concepts of loss and sexuality.

The performances will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 22-24 and 2 p.m. Feb. 24, all at Steele Hall’s Blaney Theatre.

The show follows Agnes Evans (Jillian Bruni-Cryster), an English teacher who deals with the death of her sister Tilly Evans (Ally Dobrinski) by playing a Dungeons and Dragons module written by Tilly prior to her death. The play, which originally premiered at New York City’s Flea Theater in 2011, crosses between real world and the campaign world to explore adult themes and feelings of grief, loss, repressed sexuality and familial standards.

Show director and PennWest California professor Dr. John Paul Staszel said that the cast’s enthusiasm to mesh theatre and Dungeons and Dragons to tackle difficult topics was a critical factor in bringing the play from book to stage.

“These students are already there with the gaming culture, and their drive to explore concepts of healing and identity have really brought this play to a new level,” Staszel said. “This show is both physically and emotionally taxing, so it’s been a lot of work from everyone involved.”

To help the cast handle the rigorous physical and emotional strain the show asks for, Staszel brought in fight coordinator Brent Shultz from New York City’s The New School for Drama, one of the top acting schools in the United States.

“Brent came down on the weekends from New York to work with the cast on all manners of stunt fighting,” Staszel said. “These aren’t foam swords. We’re using stage weapons that are tiring to wield, so having the expertise of Brent was invaluable to help properly train the cast.”

To tackle the themes of sexuality, Staszel used theatrical intimacy education to help the cast balance the feelings of the characters with the feelings of the cast. The intimacy training helped Staszel bridge the topics of sexuality through choreography, a practice that is currently being implemented in most levels of screen and theatre entertainment.

“In a show this emotionally intense, with so much focus on the themes of sexuality, you really need to look at the deeper feelings of both the characters and the cast,” Staszel said. “Lots of the cast and ensemble explored their own identities during rehearsals, and having that training helped us find a balance. Tackling such scenes the same way you tackle a dance number or fight scene is important and establishes boundaries for all involved.”

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