With respect to its overall mission of wanting to provoke, challenge, and even jolt its audience out of a conventional response, from time to time, Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre hits the bullseye. With its current presentation of Alexis Scheer’s ‘Our Dear Dead Drug Lord,’ now playing at Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe until November 13, Stray Cat has successfully checked off several of its boxes that require a play to be fully considered an SCT production.
Playwright Scheer’s black, often comic horror is not for everyone; if any new, contemporary writing is going to divide audiences it’s ‘Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.’ But the play aggressively seeks ways of exploring theatrical possibilities. It takes risks, monumental ones, and with a director, a choreographer, and a young cast of four women, all of whom are making their SCT debut, audiences will be witnessing the cultivation of the next generation of theatre artists in the Valley. In other words, it’s exactly what SCT aims for, its mission now accomplished, and uncompromisingly so.
It’s 2008. In a treehouse in Florida, four high-school teenage girls will meet with one aim: using their homemade ouija board, they intend to make a sacrifice then summon the ghost of the murderous cartel kingpin, Pablo Escobar.
Throughout the 90 minute no intermission production, the girls, one as young as fifteen, will be known only by the single-syllable name the spirit of the ouija has awarded them. Pipe (Shawnee Fierros Casas Richberger), Zoom (Jasmyn Gade), Squeeze (Jazmyne Plantillas) and Kit (Angel Sicairos), each with a damaging backstory that has brought them to this point, will take Tempe audiences on an emotional white-knuckle ride that will eventually develop into actions so extreme and unexpected, the shock will reverberate long after the Halloween weekend has faded.
To reveal what will have many clutching the arms of their seats will be a disservice to both SCT and audiences yet to experience the play. But by keeping silent on what happens during the terrifying final 15 minutes or so makes it a problem for reviewers to properly discuss several of the play’s misfires, for it’s here where tolerance and acceptance may be tested; you will feel the conflict. Ticket-buyers may be divided by an admiration for the playwright’s skewed take on the misguided and damaging intentions of four not particularly likable girls and how well it’s executed, while questioning the ambiguity and potential annoyance of its conclusion.
But what can be discussed is Stray Cat’s production and how the play is presented. Technical aspects are clearly top-notch. Scenic designer Robert Andrew’s wooden paneled set of a nicely-detailed, slightly slanted treehouse is outstanding; it gives the girls more than enough room in which to move around while creating the theatrical illusion of everyone operating in a confined area. Pete Bish’s often ominous sound design is effectively atmospheric, adding that extra dimension of tension and psychological stress without resorting to overplayed, dramatic loud bursts. And Dallas Robert Nichols’ virtual kaleidoscopic lighting design displays a rich pallet of colors. He doesn’t simply light the set, he often bathes it. At first glance, the rich red that suddenly illuminates the walls of the treehouse during certain climactic moments appear as though a tsunami of blood has fallen from above and splashed across the wooden panels. But here’s where the real strength of the production lies.
Sometimes it may take only one experienced artist to help elevate a production and force a cast and crew to rise way above what they thought they were capable of delivering. Director Virginia Olivieri, with assistant directors Samantha Hanna and Dolores E. Mendoza, and further assistance from fight and intimacy choreographer Monica Sampson, has reached in and helped her young cast of four newcomers flesh out something real from their individual characters.
When reviewing, there comes a point where it’s difficult to tell where credit must eventually go; in live theatre, the line between good direction and a cast that makes the play work can blur once the action begins and the players are out there on their own. In this SCT production, the second in its current season, the work and its success has clearly evolved from a collaborative effort; you’re left with the impression that every one of these ladies pitched in together and supported each other in order to make the play work. At the curtain call, they all deserve a bow.