The cast of The Wolves. Photo by Jonathan Roberts.
by Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh
A review by Allie Fireel.
Entire contents are copyright © 2020, by Allie Fireel. All rights reserved.
Actors Theatre of Louisville’s current production of The Wolves has an embarrassment of riches, onstage and off. Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize nominated, soccer-centric play is an important script that features 10 girls and femmes who pass the Bechdel Test as easily as the ball. They probably only spent about five minutes of the hour and a half run time talking about boys, and even those five minutes were really more about girls, friendship, and betrayal. The Wolves also has a production staff that is 90% women. That offstage commitment to forwarding gender parity at the industry-wide level is even more rare than the onstage corollary, and includes director Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and movement director Roci᷄o Mendez, both of whom are clearly functioning at the height of their game.
The Wolves follows an indoor high school girls soccer team as they strive to excel at their sport, hopefully heading of course to a big game, and a college career. It’s worth noting that indoor soccer is a particular beast. It happens in outdoor soccer’s off season, and while kids from the same high school often self select onto the same team, they also play with girls from other schools. But still they generally play with the same team year after year, forging strong bonds.
Mendez delivers the more obvious onstage fireworks in the form of the physical work being done to create a believable and tight-knit soccer team. Mendez has whipped the actors into shape, and they present what seem to an untrained eye to be some pretty capable athletes.
Which is damned impressive. Players spend years and years of practice in hopes that a ball will kind of go where they want it to. So to make that ball go almost exactly where it’s supposed to, while creating a believable character, seems a nearly superhuman feat. Though to be fair, the actors are figuratively and textually on the same team, which must help.
Director Yousefzadeh has led the cast through an equally difficult challenge. The Wolves, like a lot of great plays, is chock full of opportunities for failure. There is no real discernible plot; what action there is almost always happens offstage; many of the stakes are very low and never directly stated, and characters’ arcs are full of moments that the audience doesn’t see and the playwright doesn’t take time to explain. And yet not only does Yousefzadeh achieve a production full of completely real and realized performances, but she also does so while keeping up a lightning pace that makes the play’s hour-and-a-half, no intermission run-time stream by with the speed of a soccer ball hurtling through the air directly at a goalie’s face.
Points for speed awarded as well to sound designer/composer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s percussive music, which invokes the martial clip of a marching band in order to keep energy up between scenes.
DeLappe’s script is incredible, and I won’t waste much time talking about it here. It works on about 30 different layers. It’s brave and awkward and tense.
The actors, in turn, are eating the script up, and acting the hell out of it. But in the context of The Wolves, that usually means keeping it all very small. Huge moments of cruelty often come from an offhand remark or a telling bit of silence. Connection and friendship come from a quick, gentle smile, or one of the girls offering a confused outsider a gentle opening into a conversation.
Though the ensemble–known by their jersey numbers and not their names–mostly have equal stage time, the two characters given slightly more focus are #7 (Angelica Santiago), and #46 (Sushma Saha).
I haven’t been subtle about loving Santiago’s work in the last year or so. She’s popped up in several great productions at Actors Theatre and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. She’s unsurprisingly great here as well. #7 is easily the most antagonizing presence on stage; a little angrier, a little more willing to start fights. Santiago gives us the anger, brittle and sharp, while constantly showing the audience the wounded fear behind the anger.
On the other end of the emotional playing field the new kid, #46, has an almost flat affect. They don’t key into the emotions of the group and say several things that accidentally start fights. This lack of connections seems to indicate that #46 may be autistic; then again, maybe they’re just a new kid from a drastically different social context. The lack of clarity on what can make teens insiders or outsiders is another very true statement about the nature of being young; usually no one knows what the fuck is going on. Saha navigates the ambiguity well, and yields a performance that is grounded, open, and specific enough that #46 feels fleshed out and real regardless of those absent easy answers.
#8 (Mollie Murk) appears to be the frivolous, doe-eyed Pollyanna type who, in lesser plays, is a deeply annoying character. Murk’s surfeit of ebullience and honesty brings the role life. This is essential to The Wolves’ ability to capture and make palpable high school’s often pedestrian range of high hopes and crushed dreams.
But really, there is such an intense economy in the script’s character and dialogue that there aren’t many pieces -if any- that aren’t essential.
Type A team captain #25 (Regan Moro) drives the tension and keeps the pressure up. #13 (Ashley N. Hildreth) is determined to cut that tension (ironically creating more tension). #2 (Avery Deutsch) presents the oft-maligned Christian kid type with an aching credulity and lovable sweetness. #00 (Angela Alise), #11 (Alex Lin), and #14 (Gabriel Elizabeth Kadian) also bring some specific problems and personalities to the stage, though perhaps it’s better to leave out the details. Spoilers.
In an overall exemplary show, there is just one frustration. The Wolves does so many important things well, including being honest about the way teenage girls talk and treat each other, as well as the problems they face. Sex, periods, abortion, assault, Pol Pot, Harry Potter, and drunkenly gross authority figures are all in the mix. Because of that honesty The Wolves is a play that needs to be seen by teens and tweens currently moving through America’s educational system. But that same honesty will likely keep a lot of high schools, and even some colleges, from staging the play. Because God forbid we let teenage girls talk about sex, periods, abortion, assault, Pol Pot, and drunkenly gross authority figures.
January 8 – February 1, 2020
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Ky 40202
Allie Fireel is a bi-polar non-binary queer, creator, critic, and cultural community organizer working in the greater Louisville area. Their plays have been produced by multiple Louisville based companies including Theatre , Looking for Lillith, Finnegan Productions, and The Derby City Playwrights, Suspend Productions, and others. They are also the co-founder and artistic director of the Louisville Fringe Festival, and a member of the 2019 Hadley Creatives co-hort.
As Buster Fireel, they dabble in burlesque, both as a dancer and an MC. As Kerry the Killer Lawrence, they provide commentary and drama for Louisville Championship Arm Wrestling.