With sword trembling in hand, Agnes Evans faces a five-headed dragon. Today is the day she will finish the quest of her sister, Tilly, who was lost long ago. Today, Agnes faces her fears.

The dragon is only a puppet in the newest production of She Kills Monsters from the Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance, which runs October 27-November 4 at the University’s Center for the Performing Arts Theatre. In this fantasy-comedy-drama, everything is allegory.

“The play is about loss and acceptance, but with compassion, passion, and humor,” said Director Paul Dennhardt, who is a professor of theatre at Illinois State. “On one level, the dragon represents those who tortured Tilly for her sexual orientation. On another level, the dragon is Agnes’ own quest to deal with the loss of her sister. And on still another level, the dragon is a villainous boss in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.”

She Kills Monsters follows the adult Agnes’ adventure playing a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) module—or map—her sister created when she was 15. Through the play, Agnes discovers her sister was a lesbian, and bullied mercilessly in high school because of it. Working with costume designer Amanda Vander Byl, Dennhardt aimed to have Tilly’s D&D monsters bear a striking resemblance to the people who made her life hell in high school. “We designed the costumes of some of the monsters to include football helmets and shoulder pads. The succubae look like demented cheerleaders,” said Dennhardt. “For Tilly, when she was in the game, she could slay homophobia, intolerance, and hatred.”

Dennhardt and scene designer John Stark constructed a world that blurs the real world of Anges and Tilly’s friends playing the game with the fantasy D&D world that freed them. “The game is a path to wish fulfillment,” said Dennhardt. “Tilly’s friend Kelly fights with grace and elegance as an elf in the game, which is very different from her reality living with cerebral palsy. Tilly creates a world where her friends can be strong.”

Much as the game empowers the characters, the production of She Kills Monsters inspired the student actors to achieve new heights, literally. The company worked with Vertigo, which installed the harnesses used to make the actors fly, and trained the operators and actors for stage flight. “It’s incredible to watch these students not only gain the confidence to master the harnesses, but also gain skills to carry with them,” said Dennhardt. “I cannot think of a superhero movie today that does not require harness work.”

With many scenes set in a world of D&D, battles abound. A nationally recognized and celebrated fight coordinator, Dennhardt wanted the battles to convey not just the physical combat, but the emotional conflict the characters face. He turned to fight coordinator John Tovar and Professor of Acting Lori Adams. “I’m not sure we can count the number of battles we have,” said Dennhardt. “John pulled together battles that range between a two-person…or monster…scuffle to a 15-person mêlée that includes giant puppets.”

The dragon Agnes faces is one of the largest puppets in the production, manned by several student puppactors. “[Professor of Theatre] Michael Vetere rejects the term ‘puppeteers.’ He says they are actors, and should be called as such,” said Dennhardt, who asked Vetere to work with students for the production. “The puppets, and their actors, do bring another level to the performance.”

In the end, Agnes finds a way to slay the dragons of her past, and gain a better understanding of her sister. Yet for Dennhardt, the journey the students took to create the production is the true climax. “Many actors had to face their own allegorical dragons to bring the play to life,” he said. “And, like Agnes, we’ve all grown.”

Get tickets for She Kills Monsters.