Girls, Ghosts, Pablo Escobar: “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” opens at the Lupin Theater

Ian Faul, Contributing Writer

If you’ve been enjoying this week’s long-awaited cool front, don’t be so fast to attribute it to global weather patterns; it just may be that the chill you feel is coming from certain supernatural events in the Lupin Theater. 

The Tulane Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” by Alexis Scheer premiered on Tuesday to a nearly-full house. Directed by Professor Jessica Podewell, the play is a rollercoaster ride that rises to hilarious highs and plummets to tragic depths, with plenty of twists in between. The play’s rush to its inevitable conclusion is sure to knock the wind out of you; I caught myself covering my mouth as people around me began to clap.

“Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” is, among other things, about transitions. Set in 2008, Barack Obama’s monumental first election is a recurring topic of conversation for the characters — four high school girls from Miami. When they aren’t attempting to summon the spirit of Colombian narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar, whose devilishly grinning mugshot adorns the upstage wall, the girls discuss real-world issues relevant to their position at the precipice of adulthood. The trials of first love, racial stereotypes, life in post-9/11 America and the pressures of college admissions are all addressed to varying degrees. 

The most significant binary underlying the play is that of truthfulness and jest. The line between the two is often blurred, as is the case at the characters’ age. Is it possible that Escobar’s ghost is real? Did she really mean what she said? These questions give the play its fundamental tension.

As the play progresses, subsequent revelations of each character’s trauma draw the audience along and produce moments of conflict, connection, horror and beauty. Especially striking was the dance sequence that occurred in response to the death of one girl’s father, which began as a giggling mess and gradually coalesced into a transcendent healing ritual. However, these revelations of trauma are packed in so tightly in the last third of the show that it becomes slightly formulaic, disrupting the more natural fluctuations between extremes of silliness and seriousness that characterize the rest of the show. 

This is by no means a fault of direction. The acting is earnest and always fully aware of the nuances in Scheer’s writing. Exchanges between the characters Zoom (Mikayla Weissberg) and Squeeze (Rosalind Roland) are authentically playful and those between Pipe (Lourdes Castillo) and Kit (Lucia Mole) are viscerally vulnerable. Each actor defines her character so distinctly that their interactions are chemically reactive and, at times, explosive. 

Other aspects of the production, including the two-tiered set modeled after a treehouse, provide the actors with a world they can creatively interact with and be affected by. In the show’s first moments, the actors enter the stage not through the stage-right entrance as you might expect but through a trapdoor, as one would in an actual treehouse. I knew immediately from this trick that I was in for a treat; after all, what we might call tricks and treats are primary currencies of the theater.

Junior Lourdes Castillo, who plays Pipe, described the experience of rehearsing for the production. 

“It was such an amazing opportunity to spend so much time together with girls who are so passionate about theater,” Castillo said. “Having that really comfortable environment to really be creative and take the show where it needed to go was really meaningful.”

Castillo urges students to see the show, which runs through Oct 2.

“We really didn’t have an opportunity to do this at all in the past few semesters, and we’ve really been hindered by a lot of masks and restrictions and things like that,” Castillo said. “To be able to put on the show as theater should be viewed is really incredible.” 

Walking out of the Lupin theater into the breezy dusk, the show’s final lines still rung in my head. I felt a sense of wholeness: this was the college experience I was hoping for. Ironically, the play’s characters cling desperately to the fading traces of magic in their world as they simultaneously create a magic of their own — one I could experience as an audience member. I think everyone could use a dose of this kind of magic right about now.

Part coming of age tale, part ghost story, “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” is an exhilarating start to the theater department’s 2022 season. If you dare brave the dangers of both spectral drug lords and high school girlhood, it is also the perfect way to kick off your spooky season. 

Tickets are available for purchase here.

Warning: This play includes rude humor, foul language and references to sexual violence.

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