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'She Kills Monsters' conjures D&D cool

THEATER REVIEW: Garage Rep at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre

Chris Jones

8:20 PM EST, March 3, 2013

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You'd easily think that "She Kills Monsters" the clever, funny, moving, lively and delightfully geeky standout at this year's Garage Rep at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, was entirely created by Buzz22 Chicago, a very young theater company created by very youthful, very recent and very talented graduates of Northwestern University. The roles are so well-cast and the homemade theatricality so seemingly organic, you'd swear these guys spent some time at the House Theatre of Chicago — or watching StarKid Productions or videos of the old Defiant Theatre — and just decided to create an offspring of those companies, starring themselves. Scott Weinstein's production sits that easily on its likable performers' bodies in motion.

And this is the kind of show whose notions of that which is hopelessly retro — "Friends," Ani DiFranco, "The Real World," predigital activities like Dungeons & Dragons — are recent enough to make some of us feel really old.

Despite how this piece — not to be missed by those who spent their happiest hours as (or with) a certain kind of dungeon master — fits into a Chicago tradition of parody, it's actually the work of a Vietnamese-American scribe named Qui Nguyen and premiered at the Flea Theatre in New York in 2011. Nguyen is a refreshing, break-the-rules writer — he has a ready embrace of pop culture, high-school speak and "High Fidelity" cool, and he also has a mission to redeem gaming geeks everywhere. Nerds, he argues in "She Kills Monsters," had yet to become hip back in the ancient days of the 1990s. But in Dungeons & Dragons one could see the germ of their post-digital glory days.

The story told here involves a boring young woman named Agnes (Katherine Banks), whose world is upended by the loss of her entire family in a car crash. Bereft, she meets one of her younger sister Tilly's old D&D friends and disappears inside one of the games Tilly penned, all in attempt to find her late sister (played by Jessica London-Shields). With the fantasy world exploding into a domestic setting, it's all a great deal of fun and, given the premise, filled with high emotional stakes.

There are a few detours into the juvenile, some mumbling and repetition, and, at times, a lack of pace, but "She Kills Monsters," which delivers exactly what it promises, is generally a blast, totally staged in the kind of richly theatrical landscape and soundscape that will have to be back for whatever Buzz22 does next.

A semimystical homeless guy, the most familiar kind of homeless guy in dramatic entertainments, is at the heart of "Black Top Sky," an overly careful, overly competent drama by Christina Anderson. It premiered earlier this year at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, the hometown of Anderson, a writer who has been spending time studying with the great teacher Paula Vogel at Brown and Yale universities. Theatre Seven of Chicago is producing the work at the Garage Rep. It needs a spark.

"Black Top Sky" feels like the early work of a young but promising writer who will need to throw away some of that careful craft and characterization, take some more risks and expose her guts of us all to see.

The main character in Anderson's three-character play, an inner-city gal named Ida (Kristin E. Ellis), finds herself caught between two very different guys as she struggles with impending adulthood — young protagonists choosing between very different potential folks of interest being a familiar meme in playwriting programs that are best left on campus.

There's Wynn (Eric Lynch), a striving auto mechanic who seems to love her but can be aggressive, and then there's Klass (Julian Parker), who spends his time on a bench and steals her keys but is, yep, a kind of gentle poet. Ah yes, tough choices. Anderson has a feel for language and character; now she needs a more arresting set of circumstances. And in this play, it's hard to invest in what Ida and Wynn have once the man lays hands on her and, in this production, loses the audience's sympathy in such a way that he cannot recover. Overall, the actors in Cassy Sanders' production would do better if they really listened to one another.

I first saw Michael John LaChiusa's "See What I Wanna See" at the New York Public Theatre in 2005, where it starred Idina Menzel and still didn't really work. The very ambitious piece is based on the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who also inspired Akira Kurosawa, and flits from medieval Japan to the 1950s to the present day, probing such matters as the power and limitations of belief, the anguish of passion and the horrors that arrive when one loses one's faith.

The second act, which features various lonely denizens of Central Park, is much more successful than the first, both in terms of the piece itself and Lilli-Anne Brown's production for Bailiwick Chicago, which features a cast that, with the notable exception of Evan Tyrone Martin, struggles to do musical justice to LaChiusa's very difficult score. Brown and her cast need to work more on the dramatic tension in the piece. The show has a certain stylish moodiness and a broad sensuality, but the drama feels flat, disjointed and comes, alas, with too little of the requisite mystery.

Garage Rep runs though April 21 at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $20 each play, or $45 for a three-play pass. Call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib