Creating a fantasy world on stage is director’s dream come true

Juliet Moniz talks about balancing the physical and emotional demands of playing Agnes in “She Kills Monsters.”
Megan Tripaldi returned to USM as a director after graduating with a Theatre degree in 2012.
Director Megan Tripaldi.

In bringing the fantasy world of “She Kills Monsters” to life, Megan Tripaldi is also making her own dreams come true.

Tripaldi spent a lot of time on the stage at Russell Hall in Gorham as a student in the Theatre program, graduating in 2012. She returns as a director to guide a new generation of students and give them a role model for a career in the arts.

“It’s really emotional,” Tripaldi said after pausing to rein in a catch in her voice. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever come back to this building.”

Tripaldi works at Stages Youth Theater in Portland teaching Shakespeare to elementary and high school age students. Her connection to young people is especially relevant to her latest production at the University of Southern Maine.

The main characters in “She Kills Monsters” are teenagers. The popularity that Agnes enjoyed at school rings hollow after the death of her sister, Tilly. To honor her memory, Agnes follows the notes for the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons that Tilly left behind. The battles Agnes fights with her inner demons play out on the stage.

She Kills Monsters Director Megan Tripaldi gives notes during a reading.
Tripaldi graduated from the Theatre program in 2012.

Juliet Moniz, a third-year student majoring in Theatre, had never held a sword before winning the role of Agnes. She committed to weeks of training to become a convincing duelist while also learning her lines. The role’s emotional demands were every bit as intense as the physical ones.

“Megan did some pretty in-depth character work with me on Agnes at the start of the process,” Moniz said. “We discussed how Agnes is a ‘checklist person.’ She has everything all planned out, and then Tilly’s death sends her spinning.”

Despite the heartbreaking premise, the show has laughs and tears in equal measure. Tripaldi demanded a lot from her cast to sell those tonal shifts from comedy to drama. She also leaned heavily on her production crew to breathe life into the monsters of the show’s title.

The papier-mâché dragons were still missing their lower jaws with three days to go between dress rehearsal and opening night. The deadline was clearly on the minds of the artisans in the shop as they furiously hammered, stitched and painted in a race against the clock.

“It was really important to me to have the authentic elements be a part of the show,” Tripaldi said. “To make it as big as the imagination could possibly take it, that was the goal. And I think we’ve made it happen.”

Artisans build papier-mâché dragons for the set-piece battles in She Kills Monsters.
Artisans raced to make believably intimidating papier-mâché dragons in time for opening night.

Such an ambitious production sends a message that the Theatre Department is back in full force at its home in Russell Hall. All shows were suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s season began with a traveling production of “The Marvelous Meep Island Adventure” which was only performed at outdoor venues. The widespread availability of vaccines allowed Russell Hall to once again open its doors.

Noli French swings a big ax as Lilith in She Kills Monsters.
Noli French has a big ax to grind as Lilith.

“It’s the welcome home I wasn’t expecting, that I really did have a place here,” Tripaldi said. “Now I really get to give back what I’ve learned, not only in the department but in the world.”

Along with the joy of returning to Russell Hall comes the responsibility of following COVID safety guidelines. Seating is limited to allow extra distance between patrons, all of whom are required to wear masks. They must also show proof of either vaccination or a negative test result.

Evil Gabbi (Sophie Urey) pins down Tilly (Makenzie Sands) in a scene from She Kills Monsters.
The unresolved conflict between sisters Tilly (Makenzie Sands, center) and Agnes forms the play’s emotional heart.

Once the house lights go down, Tripaldi and her cast give the audience permission to take a break from the pandemic for two hours of entertainment and maybe a little soul searching.

“I hope that people get to have a chat with their younger self and let them know that they weren’t alone and it is okay to play,” Tripaldi said.

Agnes (Juliet Moniz) raises her sword in a salute to the audience at the end of She Kills Monsters.
Agnes (Juliet Moniz) ends the show by raising her sword in a salute to the audience.

“She Kills Monsters” opened on Friday, November 12. Its run continues with performances each day from Wednesday, November 17 to Sunday, November 21.