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A ‘Dungeons & Dragons’-style quest highlights Garage Rep series at Steppenwolf

Company member SarSawicki RinskCarrasco-Prestinary Allie Long Katherine Banks Morgan Maher Buzz22 Chicago’s Midwest-premiere producti“She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen directed

Company member Sara Sawicki, Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary, Allie Long, Katherine Banks and Morgan Maher in Buzz22 Chicago’s Midwest-premiere production of “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen, directed by company member Scott Weinstein, presented as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Garage Rep 2013.

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When: Rotating repertory through April 21

Where: Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20 each or $45 for three-play pass

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Updated: April 6, 2013 6:09AM

Among the many virtues of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep series — now in its fourth annual showcase of the work of selected Chicago storefronts — is that it presents the sort of things you might never see on the mainstage. For the most part performed and directed by younger artists, the Rep shows tend to feature a wider mix of styles and attitudes, and, not surprisingly, attract audiences with a visibly different demographic.

Consider Vietnamese playwright Qui Nguyen’s hugely engaging “She Kills Monsters” (Highly Recommended), with its exceptional 11-person cast brilliantly directed by Scott Weinstein. It is a production of Buzz22 Chicago, a company I’d not heard of before, but will not soon forget.

Inspired by the phenomenally successful role-playing game, “Dungeons & Dragons” (in which, ordinarily, I have zero interest), Nguyen’s 95-minute, action-packed play is a sort of epic, live-action anime as it uses the essential elements of that game to chronicle the quest of twentysomething Agnes (Katherine Banks), a straight-arrow teacher living in Athens, Ohio in the 1990s. After the tragic death of her 15-year-old sister, Tilly (the ideally Peter Pan-like Jessica London-Shields), Agnes finally tries to get to know the shy, nerdy (lesbian-leaning) younger sister with whom she had nothing in common.

Coached by a young gamester, Chuck (the downright hilarious Richard Traub), Agnes “plays out” the elaborate story found in a notebook left by the imaginative Tilly. The girl gave herself a fierce little warrior persona and cleverly turned the people in her “real life” into fantasy characters, including Lilith (the impressively morphable Sara Sawicki), a stunning dominatrix; Kaliope (Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary), a fierce if elfin warrior; two bullying cheerleaders (Ellie Reed and Allie Long); and a beastly jock, Orcus (Morgan Maher). Also part of the story are Agnes’ immature boyfriend, Miles (Fred Geyer); a nerdy classmate, Steve (Jose Nateras); and a no-nonsense guidance counseler, Vera (Daeshawna Cook).

The exuberant performers excel at the acrobatically fearsome fight choreography of Chuck Coyl, and there is sophisticated design by a hugely gifted team that includes William Boles, Rachel Goldberg, Lee Keenan, Daniel Carylon, Matt Deitchman, Colleen Werle and many others. This “game” is an epic winner on every count.

The Theatre Seven production of Christina Anderson’s “Black Top Sky” (Recommended), is a cry from the urban heart, directed by Cassy Sanders.

Set in the scrappy little park of a New York housing project, it introduces us to three characters. Ida (Kristin E. Ellis) is a recent high school grad trying to separate from an abusive mother. She dreams of a better, quieter life, yet isn’t quite ready to settle in with her slightly older boyfriend, Wynn (Eric Lynch), who has both a job and a temper. Meanwhile, she befriends a young homeless man, Klass, and in a performance of impressive poetry and volatility, actor Julian Parker mines what is unquestionably the best writing in this 90-minute work comprised of brief, well-etched scenes.

Who makes it out of the projects? Who is forever destroyed by them? And what do we carry with us, whether in plastic crates or the inner reaches of our psyches? Anderson’s play considers all these questions.

Bailiwick Chicago’s entry here is the Chicago premiere of a musical, “See What I Wanna See” (Somewhat Recommended), by the widely produced composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa (“Hello Again, “The Wild Party”). Set in 1951 New York City, it’s first act is a noir-like murder story with a multi-perspective “Rashomon” twist. Its second unspools in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The whole thing (directed by Lili-Anne Brown, with music direction by James Morehead and an excellent band), feels like LaChiusa tried to paste together two one-acts to create a full-length work. The result is a big hash whose major virtue — aside from some individually wonderful songs in a variety of styles — is to give the actors a chance to play very different characters.Evan Tyrone Martin brings a glorious voice and easy elegance to the roles of a janitor and TV news reporter. Danni Smith is sizzling as a jazzy cabaret singer, and absolutely phenomenal as an Italian-American woman with an Emma Goldman spirit. Peter Oyloe is initially a nasty rebel-without-a-cause, and then a priest who has lost his way. Sharriese Hamilton is an adulterous Japanese wife, a psychic medium and a coked up contemporary actress. And Harter Clingman as a Japanese warrior, rich businessman and accountant in a show that just doesn’t add up in any satisfying way.

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