On Theatrical Terror: “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” and “The Thin Place”
Works of drama have been traditionally classified into comedies or tragedies, (or if you are being generous, tragicomedies). Ever since the Ancient Greeks this dramaturgical framework has been the main way that audiences, writers, performers, scholars, and critics alike have understood theatre. The main basis behind this genre binary is the affect that each produces: tragedy has a negative affect, usually of sadness, while comedy has a positive affect of joy. However, recently another affect has come into fashion for theatre: fear.
This affect defies the boundaries of comedy and tragedy, although it leans closer to the latter, since fear is a negative affect. But in traditional dramaturgy, fear is not the emotion a playwright wants to elicit from the audience. Because of this, we do not even have a set vocabulary for how to talk about feelings of terror on the stage, nor do we have a clearly defined dramaturgy for how it works. Thus, the fact that several playwrights have taken terror as their goal makes for an equally noteworthy and fascinating trend.
The history of terror on the stage could be traced back quite a bit. Perhaps not to the Greeks, who almost always saved violence for offstage, but back enough to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, through bloody Jacobean dramas, adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula, and even Sweeney Todd. Beetlejuice: The Musical doesn’t really count, it’s spooky but not terrifying per se. Violence and fear themselves are not new, but the direct goal to inspire terror might be. Terror can have violence, be spooky, and cause fear, but what makes it unique is the way it combines this styles and affects to create an overwhelming mental state.
I’d argue that the first time we really got terror on the stage was with the beautiful but disastrous American Psycho: The Musical, which had a far-too short run on Broadway back in 2016. The production, with its stark white sets that became bloodier and bloodier as the musical went on, was perhaps too terrifying for its time. Audiences did not know what to make of it; after all, who goes to Broadway wanting to be terrified?
A few years later, however, two playwright have taken up the torch, building a new model for theatrical that is more subtle and refined. Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord and Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place both draw on spiritualism, séances, and ghosts to create something that is not gory, bloody, or horrifying, but instead is rooted in deep psychological terror (with a dash of spooky thrown in for good measure). Unlike in American Pyscho they are not about a sensationalized psychopathic serial killer; their stories are much more everyday, both about women who are dealing with trauma and loss.
Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, which played at the WP Theatre and was produced by Second Stage, tells the story of four teenage girls who are in a school club / mini-cult that worships dead leaders, drug lord Pablo Escobar in particular. They gather to have séances to conjure him, but we gradually realize this is less about Pablo than it is about each girl confronting her own demons: a sister who drowned when she should have been watched, a father who committed suicide, a parent who was never there, an unsure queer sexuality,
The four actresses, Carmen Berkeley as rich, Republican, ringleader Pipe, Alyssa May Gold as the desperate-to-fit-in Zoom, Malika Samuel as the cool and collected Squeeze, and Rebecca Jimenez as the edgy new kid Kit, without doubt did the best ensemble work of 2019. About halfway through Samuel leads the crew in a dance that seamlessly transitions from ridiculous to deeply personal, combining the cast into a powerful organism. The cast, helmed by director Whitney White, navigate the difficult contours of the play, no easy task, especially as the play wraps up and gets exponentially more terrifying, almost out of nowhere.
Writing about this play has been notoriously difficult for critics, since basically anymore summary than that gives away the entire play, which is a rollercoaster of emotions. The last half hour of this ninety minute play, in fact, is without question the most intense thing I have ever seen on stage. It comes with a very large trigger warning, one that is absolutely necessary.
Like Titus Andronicus, this terrifying section of Drug Lord made me question why we put terror on stage if it so difficult to watch. Much like the Titus as well, Drug Lord never really grapples with the aftermath of its violence. The play ends with a feminist chant that is as inspiring as it is catchy, but also distracts us from thinking about the actual human tool the actions of the play would have had on the characters. How can they possible be okay after all that?
As an audience member, I was not okay after Drug Lord. To call to play haunting would be both cliché and a massive understatement. Even weeks later, I have not been able to stop thinking about this play. I’m unsure if I will ever stop thinking about it. Scheer has honed into exactly what makes terror terrifying, and has proved that she is a master of this genre and affect.
Lucas Hnath has similarly shown skill at crafting terror, his in the form of an experiment, a play on the ghost story. Hnath is one of those playwrights who can seemingly do anything; his bibliography is astoundingly diverse in its generic breath, and The Thin Place (now playing at Playwrights Horizons) is a noteworthy addition. Here Hnath, with the aid of his director, Les Waters, has fashioned a dramatization of the concept of confirmation bias, which states that when presented with multiple pieces of evidences, we are most likely to accept the pieces that support the outcome we want.
On the surface, this seems like a rather intellectual basis for a play, and it certainly is. It would not be incorrect to call The Thin Place a playwrighting exercise, albeit a very successful one. The play concerns Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell) who tells us a story about how her grandmother tried to teach her some telepathy so they could talk after she died, which angered her religious mother. Both the mother and the grandmother are now dead, but Hilda wants to reach them and since her telepathy skills have failed, she seeks out a medium, Linda (Randy Danson).
After she helps and they become friends, Linda reveals that the work she does is mostly just tricks, mental manipulation where she says some basic information and lets the client fill in the details. Hilda, however, remains a believer. As ghostly events start to happen — or maybe happen — we as an audience are similarly forced into trying to decide our opinion, slippery as the situation might be.
The play presents us with events that might be supernatural but gives us various explanations. A phone call from beyond the grave could be a glitch. An asthmatic fit could just be badly timed. That specter moving in the dark could just be a trick of the light. The lighting, by Mark Barton, for the majority of the play features all the house lights on; but for one haunting third there is nothing but a red light bulb that distorts our peripheral vision. Despite logical explanations, and even though we may know better, we choose to believe that there could really be a ghost moving about the room.
Hnath achieves this through some ingenious playwrighting tricks of his own. He constantly keeps the characters, and by extension the audience, in a bizarre state of ambiguity, we never know where they stand nor where we stand, or what we are supposed to believe. Like Linda, he just gives us some rough details and lets us fill in the gaps. We are the masters of our own terror.
I left Our Dear Dead Drug Lord feeling terrified and shaky; I walked out of The Thin Place overwhelmed and confused. Neither work provides a clear ending or sense of closure, instead they force the audience to reconcile a complex litter of emotions that come after experiencing terror. It is exactly this mixed bag of feelings that makes plays based in terror so unique, for while terror may be a negative affect, the aftermath of terror is so different from the aftermath of tragedy. Theatrical terror leaves you with a whole host of emotions, some cathartic, some conflicting, but almost all completely unlike anything you’d expect to feel after watching a play. It is precisely because of this unexpected, hard to describe, new affect that these plays represent a new dramaturgical mode. So welcome to the age of theatrical terror; prepare to be spooked.