A small tree house in Florida, covered with pink artifacts, looks just like a scene from girlhood: Skip-Its, Bratz dolls, a Disney lunch box. It’s exactly how a top secret, adult-free zone from childhood should look. But instead of a poster of Miley Cyrus or The Jonas Brothers (this is 2008), there’s a big mug shot of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar hanging on the wall.
For the girls who meet up here after school, he’s their idea of an interesting guy. "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord," a workshop premiere play by Alexis Scheer, put on by Off the Grid Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts' Calderwood Pavilion, is an odd and audacious new work that — I think — seeks to examine the paranoia and the pressure of coming of age in a broken world dominated by a 24-hour news cycle, a world in which our daughters need us more than we think.
I say “I think” because despite Scheer’s imagination and Rebecca Bradshaw’s admirable direction, I remain unable to figure out what she’s actually trying to say. This doesn’t, mind you, keep the play from being engaging — it is fascinating and fun despite its unevenness and it is gripping in the sense that I couldn’t wait to find out how it would all shake out.
In the months leading up to the 2008 McCain/Obama election, four precocious high school girls, and members of their school’s Dead Leaders Club, are Escobar obsessed and try mightily, through an occult-like ritual involving candles, a Ouija board, and cocaine (naturally), to summon the spirit of their dear dead drug lord; think "Mean Girls" sprinkled with Manson dust.
When Zoom, Pipe and Squeeze (those are their club names, as chosen by the Ouija board) are joined by newcomer Kit — a girl of Colombian descent who may or may not be Escobar’s long-lost daughter — the proceedings are kicked up a notch. Oh, and one of them might have been impregnated by Escobar’s spirit.
It isn’t clear why the girls are so obsessed with Escobar or if their choice of an idol isn’t born more out of a desire for attention than anything else. But to take everything in “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” at face value would be, it seems, to miss the point. This takes place, after all, in a hideaway high up in a tree, far above the realities of the ground.
The four girls, played with exquisite naturalism by Lisa Joyce, Gina Fonseca, Khloe Alice Lin and Tatiana Isabel Gil, aren’t quite on the cusp of womanhood but they’d like to think they are. They are very much still little girls who are figuring out how they will fit in the world; they’re awkwardly smoking cigarettes and using a Polly Pocket as an ashtray, worrying one second about pregnancy and the next munching on fruit snacks.
It isn’t easy to put realistic portraits of high-schoolers on stage but Scheer and company achieve something of a miracle in that department even if the script still needs some kneading: The girls would be too young to so comfortably resort to pop culture references of the '80s like "Dirty Dancing" and "Fame" and they seem too politically savvy (they all know all about Nate Silver and Wolf Blitzer) even if their interest seems genuine and even if the play takes place in an election year.
But what Scheer does get across convincingly is that these girls are smart. And even smart girls do bad things. In a sense, they have measured their lives in world tragedies. Instead of remembering which album they lost their virginity to they recall with tenderness what catastrophe was breaking on the news at the time.
Coming of age in the era of school shootings and terrorism is not without a cost, and this millennial found that aspect of the play relatable. For all the sorrow and — spoiler alert: blood — that courses through the play, "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" is so frequently thrilling, even in its quietest moments, that I couldn’t help but feel that I might have been witnessing the birth of an important, adventurous new work.
Until the final 10 minutes.
A jarring, meta-theatrical coda derails the evening, which is, on one hand, not a surprise given the daring nature of the play, but — on the other hand — totally disappointing considering how absorbing (and traumatizing) the scene before
it is. The audience is spoken to directly: We are failing our girls and it’s too late, we are told. “Are you hoping to learn something?” we are asked. Scheer’s message then, about how we are failing to lead by example, feels incomplete. It’s worth pointing out, too, that I don’t necessarily see the connection between what the moral of the story is and what the action of the play suggests.
But the bulk of the play is so remarkably quirky and so refreshingly original that if Scheer can figure out exactly what she’s trying to say and exactly how to weave it through the narrative, I suspect she’s onto something exciting.
Off the Grid Theatre Comapny's "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" is at the Boston Center for the Arts through Sept. 1.