Schenectady High School’s Blue Roses Theatre Company plans to release the dragons during a show about a sisterly search for understanding.
“The dragons are an essential part,” high school theater director Leia Depeche promised during a rehearsal last week, as students busied themselves amid piles of papier-mache dragon heads in one corner of the theater room.
The show, titled "She Kills Monsters," hits the stage this week, with performances starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the school’s Black Box Theater. Saturday will also have a 2 p.m. performance. Tickets cost $3 for students and seniors, and $8 for adults.
The show is about more than just fights and dragons. The story is about a teenage girl struggling with grief, Depeche said. After Agnes Evans' younger sister Tilly dies, before the show picks up, she finds Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook and ventures headlong into the imaginary world her sister created.
It’s also a story of discovery. As Agnes explores her sister’s Dungeons & Dragons game, she meets Tilly’s closest friends and learns about a life she didn’t know her sister had. She also encounters dragons and monsters as she and Tilly’s friends fight their way through Tilly’s game, finding strength in her world.
“In the end, she’s much more equipped to handle the grieving process,” Depeche said.
The show is brought to the stage by a cast of about 20 students and another 25 stagehands and other support crew, with more than half of the production handled by seniors.
Senior Ayla Kanciruk is playing Agnes in her first lead role. She said she enjoys working on a character with more complexity and nuance than roles she has had previously. She said in many ways Agnes is a stereotypical high school girl, finding her way in the world and discovering her own strength.
“At the end, she is learning her own personal power,” Kanciruk said. “I like how imaginative it is."
Kanciruk is joined onstage by a bevy of other young actresses.
“We are in a theme of strong female leads, because we have so many of them here at the high school,” Depeche said of the cast.
The story’s underlying themes of grief, discovery and teenage life attempt to reach all audiences.
“The theme of grief is so universal,” Depeche said. “Agnes’ journey of grief is so recognizable to anyone.”
The show flips between two realities: the world of the game that Tilly created, and the real world of Agnes’ home and school. But in both realities, Agnes’ grief over her sister’s death is very real.
Stage manager Elliot Stover, a senior, said the lights change distinctively and the action unfolds on separate parts of the stage as the shows flips between real life and the game world. But the audience shouldn’t have a tough time figuring out which world they're watching.
“I like the openness and fluidity between the two worlds, and how they connect in Tilly’s mind,” Stover said. “The D&D world is very punk rock, very Tillyesque, and the real world is pop and Mariah Carey and very glitzy.”
Stover said teens can relate to moving through different worlds and realities as they seek a deeper understanding of themselves and those closest to them.
Senior Chris Sager will make his first onstage appearance in this week’s show after working in the crew for other shows. He plays the show’s Dungeon Master, who oversees the game as it unfolds onstage.
“I’m the character that is behind everything, in a way,” Sager said.
And as Dungeon Master, Sager doesn’t shy away from orchestrating a lively battle scene or two – or eight, which the show has. Outfitted with swords and battle axes, the student actors spar, parry and war onstage in carefully choreographed and rehearsed fights that range from playful duels to full-on melees. About half the play’s scenes include fights.
“It’s hard, safety-wise, and making sure everything is coherent and fluid and makes sense,” Stover said of working out the kinks in each of the fight scenes.
But the fights aren’t a new challenge for the theater guild.
“It’s a lot like learning a dance number in a musical,” Depeche said. “They have to be that precise.”
Zakiya Champion-Cephus plays Lilith, “a demon queen, the devil’s daughter,” she said. Lilith is the “most bully of bullies,” whom Tilly wrote into her game as the embodiment of her real-life tormentors.
“This is my battle ax,” Champion-Cephus said, showing off her equipment at rehearsal. “I have the coolest weapon. I get to slash people in the torso a lot.”
The senior has been in seven previous productions and said she likes how many personalities emerge in this show’s characters – with each taking a slightly-different tenor in the two different worlds of the show. She said it makes you think about how different teenagers can be from one another.
“That’s my favorite part -- how different these characters are,” she said. “There are a lot of different personalities. You get to see a lot of different traits. That’s worth watching.”