Sister, Sister

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


“Geekery” is how the
narrator of She Kills Monsters refers to the oft-derided game of Dungeons
& Dragons. A hooded nymph (Nicky Schmidlein, meant to resemble Cate
Blanchett’s Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings movies), tells us at
the beginning of Monsters that like many basement introverts before her,
Tilly (Allison Buck), used the game as an outlet, an escape from a high school
life that left her lonely and ostracized.

Sadly, we learn that
that Tilly is no longer one of the living at the beginning of Qui Nguyen’s fun
play, given a winning production by director Robert Ross Parker at the Flea and
starring several of its resident players, the Bats. However, Tilly has left
behind a legacy of her own in the form of Dungeons & Dragons module, a de
facto goodbye note of sorts. As a means of trying to connect with her deceased,
estranged younger sister, 25-year-old high school English teacher Agnes (Satomi
Blair) delves into the world of D&D, spryly bouncing back and forth between
her real life (Nguyen’s play is set in a pre-Internet 1995 Ohio town) and her
virtual one.

It takes a while for
Agnes, an unplayful shrew, to warm to the comforts of gaming. She has to rely
on the aid of high school Dungeon Master Chuck (Jack Corcoran) to guide her
through New Landia, where she must align with dark elf Kalliope (Megha Nabe), demon
queen Lilith (Margaret Odette), demon overlord Orcus (Raul Sigmund Julia) and
Tilly herself. Parker’s production may have had a limited budget, but his
technical crew—which includes puppet designer David Valentine’s New Landia
creatures and Jessica Pabst’s costumes, Nick Francone’s lighting design and Mike
Chin’s battle choreography—create some deliberately tongue-in-cheek effects.

Monsters’ low-brow storytelling
approach works; Nguyen fuses elements of gaming with sentimentality in the same
somewhat clumsy way Tilly would construct her own fictional universe. New
Landia serves as a conduit for Agnes to learn things in death that she never
knew about her sister in life—namely, that she was a lesbian who carried a
torch for a fellow student too scared to come out. The playwright hits on
topical dramatic themes like bullying and peer pressure but never veers too far
from the humorous (Brett Ashley Robinson has a few especially hilarious
moments) or playful (multiple pop culture references are strewn about). Blair
and Buck are particularly good at suggesting a frayed relationship, as the two
sisters tentatively accept each other on their own terms.

The show isn’t without
its flaws, which range from the minorly anachronistic (albums like Smashing
Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and the Spice Girls’ Spice
were
not yet released in early 1995) to the more substantively distracting (we keep
holding out for more information regarding Tilly’s passing in a car crash;
there is none). And at times the playwright seems eager to reinforce his
sensitive message, overstating Monsters’ theme about communing with lost loved
ones as though this paean to gamers needed more substance to be taken
seriously. Nguyen needn’t worry. He had us at “geekery.”

She Kills Monsters

Through Dec.
23, The Flea Theater, 41 White St. (betw. Broadway & Church St.), www.theflea.org;
$10–$25.

Sister Sister

Written by Christine Werthman on . Posted in Posts.


 

It is 8 p.m. on the first night of CMJ, and showcases have already invaded The Delancey. The stage in the low-lit, low ceilinged basement has been reserved for indie pop and psych acts. On it, Cristi Jo, 26, and Jessica Zambri, 28, along with their two live-show members, arrange drums, pedals, synthesizers and keyboards. Though the cranky sound guy gives limited chances for mic checks, the two petite brunette sisters still smile and thank him politely. But when the lights dim, the smiles disappear, replaced by serious, focused expressions that signify show time.

 

The band, known as Zambri, launches into a short set of dark synth-led sounds. Cristi Jo and Jessica take turns standing center and singing lead, alternating microphones that cast varying effects on their voices. These big pop-like vocals are what keep the music from sinking into depression, as the sisters take lines like “Prince of darkness/ Getting me a mess/ and turned me to stone” and pair them with catchy, singable melodies. For all of the haunting clanging on stage, the Zambris keep it light.

Sitting on a bench in front of Joe’s coffee shop in the West Village a few days earlier, Cristi Jo and Jessica appear much more carefree than their brooding tunes suggest. They alternate telling the story of their band’s formation, which began when they were growing up on Long Island. The girls are the youngest in an Italian family of six kids, and their public singing debut took place at an older sibling’s wedding. “Our first gig together was in front of a crowd of 400 people,” Jessica recalls. The pair started to write songs as 3rd and 5th graders, respectively. After high school ended, both Zambris took classes at Berklee College of Music in Boston before deciding to move to New York City in 2003.

The sisters plugged away at their music, using computer programs to record material. The time eventually came when Cristi Jo and Jessica needed to pin a title to their project. For this, they turned to their family for ideas. It was their father who suggested that they name the group Zambri. When Jessica asked why, her dad, in his thick Brooklyn accent, responded, “Out of respect for the family.”

At first, Cristi Jo and Jessica decided to add more band members to Zambri. But after releasing the group’s debut EP, Bang for Changes, in October 2009, they realized that they felt more comfortable as a creative duo. Other players do still make appearances in the live show, including Seth Kasper on drums and Will Spitz on keyboards, in addition to “sheet metal,” says Cristi Jo.

The Zambris also contribute to the live show’s instrumentation, swapping keyboard duties. But their voices are their other instruments, which they alter through various microphone settings. Manipulation of the voice was a key element in the group’s latest collection of songs, all of which began with vocal parts. These tracks will appear on Zambri’s upcoming album, which has no official release date or title as of yet. “We’ll have to run it by a family vote,” Cristi Jo says.

They will also have to take a vote on visuals. Some of the group’s more recent promotional photos have featured Cristi Jo and Jessica with objects covering their mouths. When asked to explain the reasoning behind this, Jessica points to her sister. “Go go for it, Cris,” she says. “That was all you.”

“I had these [hair]clips that looked like a mouth to me,” Cristi Jo says. During a photo shoot with their friend Stephen Biebel, they decided to explore this visual concept, which was meant to symbolize the illumination of the voice. “So we thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ll do the clip-mouth idea,’” Cristi Jo says. “It seemed a little bit not human to me,” she says, “like a creature.”

“It did the trick,” Jessica says. “I definitely felt like a creature.”

Zambri, Nov. 3, Pianos, 158 Ludlow St. (betw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.), 212-505-3733; 8, $8.

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