More than Magic: USC’s Green Room Productions presents She Kills Monsters

12632881_10206878192771666_333545778_o by: Haley Sprankle

“Some people run, some people paint, and some people play D&D.”

Green Room Productions, the completely student-run production company at the University of South Carolina, presents Qui Nguyen’s play She Kills Monsters.

The play follows Agnes Evans, a woman who lost her parents and younger sister Tilly in a car crash, as she moves out of her childhood home. While packing up, she discovers her sister’s Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign book, and she takes on the journey to learn more about herself, her sister, and how to cope with loss.

“I think that the play makes a lot of statements. On the surface, it's a celebration of ‘nerd culture’ and misfits and kids who may be a little different,” junior Brooke Smith, playing Agnes, explains. “But, the biggest statement that it makes is on how people deal with grief and what it takes to process tragedies in our own lives.”

Graduate student Ryan Stevens returns to the director’s chair with this production. His work was last seen in the USC Lab Theatre where he directed his original piece Player King, but he has also produced some intimate staged-readings of other original works since then.

The crew is full of USC seasoned regulars with Megan Branham (lighting designer), Jordan Young (sound designer), Rebecca Shrom (costume designer), Kira Neighbors (stage manager), and Grace Ann Roberts (assistant director/choreographer). They have put together a technical show with impressive and complex design elements. Also, with the USC Theatre Department’s season in full swing, Stevens was able to accrue a sizeable, talented group of students to be a part of this production.

Photo by Alexandra Herstik

“This cast is extremely diverse. Yet again, I’ve drawn extensively from Columbia’s improv community and brought in a few people who are relatively new to the acting game, because the script, in my mind, dictates a large amount of looseness and freedom and natural reaction from its actors,” Stevens elaborates. “These twelve actors are all giving their all to immerse themselves in the worlds of the play, both real and imaginary. This script has most of its actors playing multiple roles, or multiple versions of the same character, so it’s really a great showcase for their range, and they are absolutely rising to the occasion.”

One of the new kids on the block is junior Corey Drennon. Drennon was showcased previously this year through the Overreactors improv group, but she has not pursued theatre since high school. Adopting the role of Tilly Evans, Drennon has had to learn how to bring a deceased character to life.

“Tilly is exuberant, imaginative, and steadfast, especially when it comes to her friends. She’s funny and extremely sarcastic. Tilly has a spark in her--she definitely goes against the crowd. In a field of flowers facing the sun, she’s facing the opposite way,” Drennon highlights.

This complex character leads her sister into a world that not everyone gets to experience in their lives--the elaborate world of Dungeons and Dragons.

“I’d actually never played D&D until my freshman year. I thought that it was just a very long-winded and jargon-heavy sort of board game, with all the maps, graph paper, figurines, dice, and huge books, because that’s how it always looks on TV,” Stevens relays. “It was a really refreshing surprise when I found out the game is mostly imaginative. Sure you have like a sheet of character information, and you have dice, but it really is just a lot of world-building with friends. It’s a very communal game, all about working together to tell, and participate in, this story that no one really knows how it’ll turn out.”

Get a feel for that D&D experience February 4-7 at Benson Theatre. Tickets are $5 at the door, with limited seating available.

“I think audiences will be charmed by the fantasy of the escapism and the spectacle of this magic, Lord of the Rings-on-Adderall type of world we’re creating,” Stevens adds. “But I think once they’re charmed, they’ll find a lot in common with Agnes in her attempt to reconnect with her late sister. It’s a very human longing, the longing to have known someone better, all the more exacerbated after that person has been lost. It’s very much a play about bonding and connection, whether through a sense of capital-H Honor, through family bonds, or just plain old love.”

"The Shape of Things" at USC's Benson Theatre - a must-see this weekend!

This is not a theatre review.  Not exactly anyway.  This is more of a stream of consciousness reflection on a show that opens tonight (Friday April 11) - The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, featuring some very talented young actors, most undergrads at USC.  I was fortunate enough to see a rehearsal earlier this week. The show only runs for two performances, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM, at the Benson Theatre on the USC campus.  Benson was once the old elementary school for the Wheeler Hill neighborhood, right around the corner from Bates, just off Pickens Street at the top of the hill.  (Or "near where the old Purple Onion used to be," in Columbia-speak.) The Facebook "event" page is here.

shape of things 5LaBute is known for small-cast, ultra-realistic plays that tackle issues of relationships and ethics in contemporary society. Two similar works, Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty, were produced at Trustus in 2009 and 2010 respectively.  All three feature a likeable, ordinary schlub as protagonist, here a mild-mannered English major (Adam, played by Dillon Ingram) on the 6-year plan, juggling jobs as museum gallery guard and video store clerk.  All feature a cocky, misogynistic best friend who's a bit of a tool, but whose natural, believable dialogue with the lead reveals the way "normal guys" interact and look at life these days. (If I were LaBute's real-life buddy, I'd be saying "Hey wait a sec - you tryin' to say something here?")  All feature one or more attractive women, at least one of whom is scorned or betrayed, and one who causes the lead to re-examine fundamental values and aspects of his life. All explore themes about how physical appearance relates to self-image, self-worth, and relationships.

(L-R) Dillon Ingram, Katie Foshee, Patrick Dodds, Catherine Davenport

Here the playwright raises some really important, really uncomfortable, and ultimately unanswerable questions:  what if your girlfriend inspires you to be a more confident and assertive person?  What if she encourages you to work out, eat better, and get in shape?  Sounds pretty sweet, especially if she is a fabulous artsy babe, a little older, worldlier, and more passionate about life. But at what stage does "you make me want to be a better man" become "you don't love the man I am?"  And what if the gender roles are reversed?  What if an ordinary young woman is ready to marry a boyfriend who is only 5 or 6 personality traits/flaws away from being perfect?  Is she tolerant, loving and accepting... or settling for a guy who doesn't deserve her?  What if she becomes attracted to a more compatible male friend...but only after he loses weight and becomes more confident?  Does that make her suddenly insightful?  Or awfully superficial?

As the "manic pixie dream girl" (described by director Bakari Lebby in his guest blog a few days ago) determined to remake her man in her chosen image, Katie Foshee starts the show as a defiant, Nirvana T-shirt-clad rebel, preparing to deface a statue as an artistic statement against censorship. We expect the plot to center around the nature of "What Is Art?" subjective vs. objective, but soon we're into the deeper, darker territory of intimacy and betrayal.  Or are we?  Elegant, icy, calmly assertive in 5-inch heels and a mini-skirt as she presents her MFA project towards the end, Foshee gives a very subtle, under-stated performance.    Is Evelyn - yes, the main couple are Adam and Eve(lyn), if there's any question as to the universality LaBute is channeling - a free spirit, an extremely experimental artist, a manipulative and bitchy girlfriend, or a sociopath?  Possibly all of the above, but nothing is as it seems, and a plot twist that was foreshadowed extensively and repeatedly caught me totally by surprise, thanks to Foshee’s commitment to and underplayed portrayal of her character.  Dillon Ingram starts out resembling a cross between Patrick Wilson in Watchmen and Johnny Galecki in Big Bang Theory, which is appropriate, given the Leonard-Penny vibe that Adam and Evelyn have. Indeed, the wacky beauty and the uptight establishment type turn up everywhere in pop culture, from Hepburn and Grant in Bringing Up Baby, to Dharma and Greg.  Yet as above, things are not as they seem, and plentiful references to literary predecessors like Pygmalion and Frankenstein that explore the relationship of the creator to his creation  only hint at some of the complex turns the plot takes. In retrospect, even random references to films like Blade Runner, a movie in which some creations seek out their creator looking for answers, while others are oblivious to their real nature, seem unlikely to have been coincidental.

Katie Foshee as Evelyn, the "manic pixie dream girl"

Patrick Dodds, the only non-USC student involved, first blew me away a year and a half ago in Spring Awakening, with his heart-breaking portrayal of Moritz, a boy unraveling before our eyes.  Just a few months later he was rocking out as a smooth T-Bird singing "Magic Changes" in Grease, and a few months beyond that he was singing Andrew Lloyd Weber songs in Dreamcoat.  Here Dodds successfully creates yet another entirely different persona, ostensibly a stereotypical chauvinist college dude, yet still a real human being with genuine feelings. I once wrote that as Moritz, he reminded me of the angsty young Pete Townshend; here, with a cocky attitude and his long jaw, sharp nose and dark wavy hair, Dodds bears more than a little resemblance to the young Bruce Campbell. If they ever film Campbell's best-selling autobiography, Dodds needs to play the lead. Catherine Davenport likewise takes a stock role (the wholesome college girl ready for marriage) and creates a sympathetic and three-dimensional character.

rehearsing "The Shape of Things"

The great work by the young cast and first-time director Bakari Lebby points to the importance of arts education in our schools, as well as charting a sort of Six Degrees of Local Theatre Separation.  Dodds, Davenport and Ingram were all theatre students of Jeannette Arvay Beck at Dreher, while Foshee studied with Monica Wyche at Blythewood, and Lebby studied with E. G. Heard at Heathwood. Heard played a LaBute heroine herself a couple years ago at Trustus (indeed, a sociopathic one, according to one review) and directed Lebby, Davenport and Foshee in last summer's Camp Rock at Workshop; her assistant director for that show, Samantha Elkins, alternated with Heard as Maggie the Cat last year, and played Davenport's mother in Brighton Beach Memoirs in January. Both Heard and Elkins stopped by the rehearsal I attended to offer some tips and notes for their young protégés.

shape of things 4

Director Lebby is of course limited by the intimate space and shoestring budget of an all-student production in Benson, but at this tech rehearsal he was experimenting with creative lighting and tone-complementing musical effects. The play is almost all dialogue, in generic apartments, galleries and campus locales, and LaBute's ultra-realistic script forces the characters into certain directions and choices no matter what. Still, we see Lebby's artistic vision so clearly and beautifully in the show's final moments, as a sole figure is left to reflect on what has just transpired, and Lebby allows the moment to play out naturally, with perfect music and lighting enhancing the mood.  Lebby just finished a successful run in The Color Purple, and one would have to be insane to simultaneously be rehearsing a lesser-known, quirky show in a bare, alternative space after success in a name-brand play... yet I did the same damn thing in my senior year in college, so I have to give him a huge shout-out.  Foshee and Dodds are both performers whose work I have admired for a while now, and it's so nice to see them get the chance to delve into meaty character roles.  Foshee and Ingram will be heading off to seek their fortunes on the west coast after graduation, so now may be your last chance to see them; Dodds, on the other hand, needs to enroll his ass in USC's drama program right now, and any parental/authority figures reading this may quote me, because he has mad potential.

I normally try to avoid talking too much about the type of shows I enjoy, or specific performers whose work I admire, but see above - this isn't a real review, so, like, dig it.  For me, you could have successive nights of Hugh Jackman doing Les Mis live with a million-dollar stage set.... and I'd still rather see four dedicated kids on a bare stage doing something meaningful to them.  This show is sometimes described as a dark comedy, a serio-comedy, or a "dramedy."  I'd describe it as a dark fable about contemporary relationships and society, set in the context of college dating, with some great moments of humor (in the vein of perhaps Sex and the City or Friends) as well as some chilling implications about the choices that people make for love.

As above, The Shape of Things only runs for two performances, tonight and tomorrow at 8 PM, at the Benson Theatre on the USC campus. The Facebook "event" page is here.

~ August Krickel

Making “the shape of things” happen: confessions of a twenty-two-year-old first-time director - a guest blog by Bakari Lebby

Hi!   I’m Bakari!   I hope you’re having a great day so far.   Me?    I’m pretty good, I suppose.   Jasper told me that I can be as informal as I would like to with this, so here goes. Here’s a synopsis that I wrote for my upcoming production of the shape of things, by Neil LaBute:

When Evelyn, a quirky art student, and Adam start dating, Adam’s friends notice that his appearance begins changing rapidly. Adam is transforming into a more attractive person and as time moves on, his attitude also begins to change. His friends take notice and respond in conflicting manners.

Pretty good, right? That took me about 30 minutes to write.

I’m going to try and explain the production process a bit, and just ramble in text;  I hope this makes sense, but I make no promises.

This show came together through Green Room Productions, a student-run organization at the University of South Carolina.  Back in November, I got it in my head that I wanted to direct this play in Benson Theatre, so I wrote a proposal and sent it to Green Room.  They got back to me in late January, I held auditions, pulled a cast together, blah blah blah, and now we have a show!  A lot of people ask me:  “Is this for you to graduate or something?” Which really sounds like “Why the hell did you go this out of your way for no payment or credit hours?”

shape of tuings

I have a couple reasons. I realize that we as undergraduates at the University of South Carolina don’t get as many opportunities for leading roles in demanding material.  Dillon Ingram (Adam), for instance, is a great actor whom I’ve seen on the mainstage at Carolina, but I felt that he would kill in a leading role.   Also, I really wanted to direct something that people aren’t getting at Carolina.   I felt that the shape of things was just the thing I was looking for.   I’ve always been a LaBute fan, and even though he had many other works to choose from, I knew this was the one, the one for me.   It’s funny, it’s unsettling, it’s vulgar, and most of all it’s real.  The dialogue is very real.  The plot is very real.  Even though there is a bit of hyperbole, this play talks about things that happen that we may choose to ignore when it becomes too personal.  Things like art and the concept of being cultured, being attractive and how far being attractive will get you, and infidelity. Especially infidelity.  No one ever wants to talk about it, and I don’t think that’s fair, because it happens.  I guess where I’m going with this is that I think people will see parts of themselves all over the show.  Hopefully audiences will question themselves later that evening or the next day.  So, that’s kind of a roundabout way of me explaining why I chose this play.

Still with me?

I have a super cool cast.  They are all amazing actors, but I don’t think that’s the only reason they’re so super cool.   It’s also because none of them are playing roles that they are used to playing.   For an actor, or one who is at all ambitious, that’s the dream. This is like anti-typecasting.   Patrick Dodds (Phillip) actually told me a few days ago that this is so cool to him, because he’s “never really played a dick onstage before”.  That’s a very basic illustration of the character, but I know what he meant, which is why I cast the kids that way.  It’s also intriguing for audiences to see actors trying new stuff. I acted in Camp Rock last summer at Workshop Theatre with Katie Foshee (Evelyn) and Catherine Davenport (Jenny).   The difference in roles between these two shows could not be more extreme.   I feel like I should have a poster that says “Come see Doody from Grease and Mitchie from Camp Rock say a bunch of bad words on stage!”   Or not.   That looks so much crazier written down than it did in my head.   Speaking of things that look less crazy in my head, directing anything of this length is new for me.   I’ve done things like music videos and small sketches, but never a full-length play.   I’m sure the cast can agree, sometimes things make more sense in my head than they do out loud.   But give me a break, I’m learning.

shape of things


shape of things 5

Directing is weird.  It’s cool, but it’s weird.  Mostly because it’s so interesting to see things come together and watch characters grow, but also because it’s so time consuming.  We’ve been doing a lot of stuff when not rehearsing, like discovering props and set pieces and painting and building and designing sound and finding set and lighting designers and SCHEDULING ANYTHING.   It’s so worth it though.   Also, the team I’m working with is awesome.   The stage manager, Lauren Pace, who was assistant stage manager for  Legally Blonde at Workshop this season, keeps me in line and sane. Samantha Elkins has been coming through in the clutch, helping me as an assistant director.   She rocks, because I love having a second eye, and especially a trained second eye.   I also like having an untrained second eye, which is why I brought in my boy Chris Pickering. He’s a theatre virgin, and my assistant stage manager.   I asked him if he wanted to be Prop Master General, and he responded “I have no idea how to do any of this, but yeah!”   He really put the team on his back.   He also helps a ton, because he can be a “normal person” when I need that viewpoint.   If that makes any sense.   So, I feel that the team is pretty clutch.   And I’m extremely grateful that they’re all on top of it.   Especially considering that I do a million things at once.   I’m currently a full-time theatre major at the University of South Carolina), a part-time employee at Sid & Nancy, a local musician, and an actor.   I actually just finished performing in Workshop Theatre’s production of The Color Purple on Saturday. Directing a show while being in a show makes for very little sleep and a lot of forgetting to eat dinner. Supposedly that’s unhealthy or something.

shape of things 3

This production is totally worth seeing, because you’ll see a boy-meets-girl story that isn’t at all what you’ll think it will be.   You will see the pains of being an artist in a small town, or the confusion of art and wondering where it crosses the line.   You’ll hear a soundtrack that only uses local and regional music.   It tackles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or MPDG, trope, because I think it’s nice to see a side of American storytelling where the depressed boy realizes that MPDG's aren’t real,  AND where the female lead who seems to be the MPDG is more than just a cutesy shell of a human.   She’s an actual person with plans and thoughts. If you have no idea what a MPDG is, I believe this article should help, but think Natalie Portman in Garden State, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, or Zooey Deschanel in anything she is ever in ever. Actually, for all of the characters. This production takes notice that even though the world around us may be black and white, no human being is two dimensional. People are still people.

So, please come see it, Soda City. I think you’ll like it.

~ Bakari Lebby

the shape of things, a stageplay by Neil LaBute, will be performed at Benson Theatre (301 Pickens Street) on April 12 and 13 at 8 PM. Tickets will be $5 at the door.