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Our Dear Dead Drug Lord

Friday Aug 24, 2018
The cast of 'Our Dear Dead Drug Lord'
The cast of 'Our Dear Dead Drug Lord'  

Off the Grid's workshop production of Alexis Scheer's "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" contains a slew of hefty issues, all wrapped in a blend of comedy, drama, poignancy, absurdity, and a few strands of the supernatural.

The play is set in a tree house, a suitable approximation of an adult abode with rough plank floors, gingerbread-house profile, toys and games scattered about, tree branches stretching overhead and out a window that's fancifully shaped like a crescent moon. Within its confines a small all-girl club - the Dead Leaders Club - gathers, its members, like their clubhouse, rough versions of the adults they will soon grow into. But just how are their characters forming, and under what pressures? Which lessons have they taken in from home, school, and the socio-political environment at large?

There's hope, as the Obama-era slogan would have it. This play is set at the dawn of that time; it's 2008 and the presidential election is drawing near. The girls debate the merits of Obama versus McCain, and argue about Sarah Palin (at least one of them rejects her as a role model) and Hillary Clinton.

They also - and this is the kicker - have seemingly adapted various religious influences and melded them into a kind of cult of early teen romance, fixating on (of all people) Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The play is a true mashup of innocence and culpability, and of naivety and precociousness: Cocaine and Ken dolls play a part in the rituals the girls have invented as part of their cultic devotionals to the dead Escobar, whose status as "drug lord" takes on a whole new meaning.

Things get going when a new girl (Tatiana Isabel Gil) joins the group. Her name - as determined by the club's Ouija board - will be Kit, which is spooky since the last girl named Kit to belong to the club died under circumstances the longtime members hesitate to disclose. Will the new Kit become sacrificial fodder? Or are the hints and references to diabolical undertakings past and forthcoming all for show?

The leader of the group, Pipe (Gina Fonseca), seems just about intense enough to do something homicidal. She's smart, and maybe just the tiniest bit unhinged. The others - Zoom (Lisa Joyce), who's Jewish and younger than her fellow club members, and Squeeze (Khloe Alice Lin), who is Chinese and whose father, we learn, died a year ago - are not quite as sharp, or as dangerous, as Pipe, but they exude an energy that's equally uneasy. They, too, are poised between girlishness and womanhood, and they vacillate between the two with absolute, and unconscious, ease.

Not everything in the play is sinister. There are many lighthearted and even poignant passages, and the character interplay is often zesty, frivolous, and charming. The cast capture all those moods, juggling and bouncing them back and forth like so many rubber balls. When the atmosphere turns plaintive or tender - as with a memorial dance Squeeze choreographs in honor of her are father - the transition is complete and all-encompassing. The dance in question is downright moving - and when, later on, it's repeated with a kind of angry provocativeness, the same moves sizzle with dangerous eros rather than reflecting grief.

This is a study in pieces and parts, and everything from the girls' religious observances (a hybrid of Catholicism and something that seems vaguely pagan) to their emerging sexuality (a hilarious rehearsal for breaking up with boy is goosed by an equally hilarious homage to the "girls' code" and offset with a burgeoning lesbian romance) to the oft-referenced national mood (one of partisanship and division) reinforces that.

That said, all these pieces and parts remain fragmentary, never managing to meld into one coherent whole. In a way, that's fine; the play is divided up into four or five distinct chapters, and there's no rule book that says each chapter, or even each scene, should not sample widely from the palette of human emotion. In another way, though, one longs for the narrative and emotional through lines to be cleaner and more distinct.

When the action strays into the inevitable violence we sense coming from the start, it's all the more disturbing for the way in which we've followed these young women through petty arguments and life-defining crises, not to mention gossip and vivid fantasies and tart one-liners. They aren't evil, as we're assured in a coda that feels simultaneously meta, metaphysical and tacked on. They're just girls, doing their best to grow into women, and if there's a moral failing afoot it belong to the parents, teachers, and role models charged with their upkeep and development doing. There's another religious theme here, and it has to do with the humanistic and sacred task of conducting children through the mysterious transubstantiation that is adolescence.

"Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" tickles us with intimations of incipience Bacchanal frenzy, and satirizes our current weakness for the cult of personality. It also, arguably, skewers our growing antidemocratic fervor and our precipitating tendencies toward theocracy. But in its current form, it falls short in the follow-through: We're handed the questions, and the judgments, the play wishes to ask and impart, but we in the audience don't make the crucial transition in perception and comprehension we need to in order to feel that we've successfully completed a journey of our own. This story resonates inside one, painfully and memorably, but without anything that smacks of resolution - or, more to the point, earned irresolution.

That said, keep in mind this play is still being workshopped. Like its characters, "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" has the element of suspense about it: How will it eventually turn out? It's worth keeping watch to find out.

"Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" continues through September 1 at the Boston Center for the Arts.for tickets and more information please go to www.offthegridtheatre.com

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