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BWW Review: Stray Cat Theatre Presents OUR DEAR DEAD DRUG LORD

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The production of Alexis Scheer's play runs through November 13th at Tempe Center for the Arts.

BWW Review: Stray Cat Theatre Presents OUR DEAR DEAD DRUG LORD

If you're jonesing for shock value, enjoy gratuitous profanity and offbeat humor, or see trigger warnings as an inducement to buy a ticket, then OUR DEAR DEAD DRUG LORD might be just the right fix. However, if you're into the theater of subtlety, strong character development, and a thematic trajectory that makes sense, then this reviewer recommends you look for your stimulation elsewhere. Let me explain.

When Alexis Scheer made her off-Broadway debut in 2019 to critical acclaim with the production of OUR DEAR DEAD DRUG LORD, the play had been going the workshop rounds for two years. Written after she had graduated from the MFA playwriting program at Boston University and shortly after the defeat of Hilary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election, the play is set in 2008 when Barack Obama was running against John McCain and, incidentally, when the playwright herself was in high school. As she was putting the final touches on her work, she described the play as "part indictment on the American celebritization of criminals and part girls just growing up and trying to figure out where the limit is."

The sequence is notable as the new playwright's voice, in its developmental stage, drew from her own experience as an adolescent and a desire to reflect the dynamics and mindsets of young women coming of age in changing times. It's their voices she aims to authenticate and differentiate from the stereotypes of modern culture ~ and it's these young women she aims to empower.

To these ambitious (but less than fulfilled) ends, the play focuses on the four members of the Dead Leaders Club ~ not your every day school club but one devoted to ouija board divinations, sacrificial rituals and the study of criminals. After their group has been suspended for choices that included leaders like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, and then Pablo Escobar, they find a haven for their meetings in the treehouse of Pipe, their club leader.

The agenda of the quartet, dressed in their neatly tailored private school uniforms (costuming credit to Maci Hosler) is twofold.

First, these rebellious spirits have convened to summon the spirit of the infamous Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist. The purpose, to assign them their gang tags.

When one is handled Kit, the name of Pipe's dead sister and a former club comrade, things get a bit creepy. The others fantasize about her origins. Is the new Kit the spirit of the old Kit? Is she the manifestation of Escobar's daughter ~ perhaps on the run or in witness protection?

The second piece of business is the club's appeal for reinstatement on the grounds that their first amendment rights have been abridged. ("The school is denying us the space to study historical figures that they subjectively disagree with. It's like fascism.")

What ensues ~ following a séance and the required strangulation of a cat ~ is a passel of musings about sex, drugs, school shootings, 9/11, and socialism...and more. The girls debate. They reveal personal secrets. Squeeze's father committed suicide. Kit has been traumatized by the abuses of her mother's boyfriend. Pipe feels responsible for her sister's death. Zoom may be pregnant but only by immaculate conception.

Interspersed with periodic flashes of dark humor and teen epiphanies (rituals matter; love and violence come from the same place; reality only exists in relation to sanity) is a palpable sense that the pressure of a dark undertow is at hand. I mean, the publicity has already cued us that something dreadful is afoot; we're just waiting.

There are too moments of potential that cry for refinement and amplification but get lost in a swirl of mixed agendas whether it is an unexpected and awkward kiss or a secret's reveal.

A fine group of actresses take the stage to do what they can with the material that they have.

As Pipe, Shawnee Fierros Casas Richberger plays the club leader with a mix of determination and deep-set vulnerability. Jazmyne Plantillas is cool and winsome as Squeeze the drama nerd who leads her cohorts in a choreographic tribute to her father. The highly charged and haunting tempo of the dance is suggestive of more intense and darker moments to come. Of all the performances, Jasmyn Gade's portrayal of Zoom is the richest and best defined ~ impressionable, excitable, pushing her peers to the edge of their patience.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding these attributes, loudness all too often substitutes for what could be nuanced performances that define the characters more clearly, give definition to their teen angst, and connect them not only with each other but also with the audience. So, the arc of the play stays flat until it propelled into a new and feral space.

The advance promotion of the play suggests that the audience may be shaken by the play's climax and that playgoers should not reveal the ending to anybody. The problem is that the world has changed dramatically since 2008 let alone 2019. What can any of us be shaken by after the violence and savagery to which we've been exposed on-stage, on-screen, in city streets, and on battlefields. The cacophonous chatter of the characters ~ their adolescent fixations ~ now seems mundane, precocious, sophomoric.

To give urgency and relevance to this play requires rigorous attention to nuance and character development ~ enough to make us care about each girl and to recognize their distinctiveness and their personal struggles. These elements are missing in Stray Cat Theatre's current production of the play, directed by Virginia Olivieri.

Far more problematic ~ and this may be more a shortcoming of the playwright than of direction ~ is the total disconnect between the play's ending and the scenes that have preceded it. The trajectory of the play takes an abrupt detour into a new domain ~ a ritualistic and violent fury of self-affirmation and redemption that may leave some attendees either horrified, confused, or maybe uplifted. The incantations and exhortations of the play's final moments are obscured by incomprehensible dialogue and the eerie chanting of the club members. It's loud ~ sound and fury signifying the rite of passage and with it the presumption that the shift merits acclamation and respect.

For all that has transpired in the play's ninety minutes, a question lingers in the air: To what end?

On a final note, when it comes to artistry, Robert Andrews's set (accentuated by Dallas Nichols's lighting effects) fills the bill. This is no ramshackle treehouse but a neatly laid out and exquisitely appointed temple for the club's exhortations and divinations. It may be far too bright and shiny for the proceedings it holds. In any case, kudos!

OUR DEAR DEAD DRUG LORD runs through November 13th at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Studio Theatre.

Photo credit to Kristy Velesko ~ L to R: Richberger, Plantillas, Gade, Sicairos

Stray Cat Theatre ~ https://www.straycattheatre.org/ ~480-227-1766

Venue: Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre ~ 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ


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