Review: "The Wolves" at Jungle Theater
The Pulitzer-nominated play about a nine-girl soccer team shows how we can leave conventional playwriting behind
Michelle de Joya (#11) with Wolves teammates/Photo by Dan Norman
Watching nine girls kick a soccer ball around—all of them arguing, gossiping, and posing philosophical questions at the same time—you forget about the title of Pulitzer-nominated play The Wolves.
But then they form a pre-game huddle. Dressed in maroon uniforms, the teammates drape their arms around shoulders and hips. They bob in unison, chanting, “We. Are. The wolves—we are the wolves.” And it clicks, in the subtle way a title should—the reason this carnivore, romanticized for splitting from the pack, gets symbolic treatment over the course of the 90-minute play.
For one, there’s the ferocity. This all-women show, following the inner social dynamics of a high-school soccer team, debuted in New York two years ago to critical acclaim for staging raw, unsanitized girlhood. Jungle Theater artistic director Sarah Rasmussen lobbied hard to bring The Wolves to Minneapolis, and the compelling, high-energy result runs through May 6. Turning over the lives of its heroines, the play never second guesses itself, and never broadcasts this achievement, either. Its beauty lies in letting the young ladies speak for themselves—mispronunciations, interruptions, swear words, non-P.C. remarks and all (similar, in this sense, to buzzy Oscar-nominated film Lady Bird).
Debut playwright Sarah DeLappe focuses on sketching personalities, so there's no convenient three-act setup. Instead, we pursue the girls’ splintering conversations. They indecorously span topics—from internet censorship to menstrual cycles, from their punk-styled classmate to their coach’s drinking problem, from their weightless opinions on Cambodian genocide to American civil liberties. Stakes do surface, as does foreshadowing of a few characters’ reckonings. But DeLappe hides these hints within the play’s biggest draw: the naturalistic, overlapping, scattershot dialogue. It owes partly to a unique premise, for how often do we see girls depicted without male foils, engaged in a rough sport? Over six scenes, on a bright-green stage that evokes the turf of an indoor soccer field, the teens stretch, practice, eat orange slices, and—most of all—chatter before games.
What they find interesting at any given moment determines what we learn about them. Storylines come, go, and come back again. This means conflict rises out of competing personalities more than action-driven plot points. In a Breakfast Club effect, soccer has wrangled girls of varying social skills, and we get the sense some might otherwise ignore, if not actively avoid, one another. It’s the field—far enough away from eavesdropping adults—that grants reprieve from their more-public teen selves. The stage rears up, like a halfpipe, to form its own backdrop, meaning the set offers no horizon. The girls exist on a kind of dimensionless plane, suspended from real life. Darting soccer balls—some of very few props—visualize the fiery, friendly neuro-activity of their informal Socratic seminars, usually regarding more-consequential affairs offstage.
Star LaBlanc (#00) and Chloe Armao (#14)/Photo by Dan Norman
It's easy to tell: This onstage chemistry is vérité. Rasmussen, in an emotional pre-show address to the audience, compared the girls’ tight, insular bond to that of the actors. Beyond the play, these women more often compete for roles. Here, too, critics have commended DeLappe for subverting archetypes and rounding out each character, so no one stands out as the star.
This makes singling out performances tough, too. But, as player #13 (a class-clown type), actor McKenna Kelly-Eiding succeeds in the difficult task of delivering goofball lines without any exaggerated winking or mugging. She gets across a deeper layer—a kind of boredom or insecurity that the character masks. Each actor, in fact, exudes a fraught inner life. They embody young, nuanced histories along with clashing maturity levels. Player #7 (Becca Hart), for example, is sharp, assertive, at the top of the food chain, and yet, we can tell, unhappy. In contrast, #46 (Megan Burns) is the quirky, buoyant girl from out of town, the worldliest member of the team who nonetheless struggles the most with what the others consider common sense. At points, she fails to discern between what's appropriate and inappropriate. When #46 and #7 collide, it is as between two self-contained worlds.
Such differences make the girls' bond—unspoken, overarching—the more affecting. It's telling, too, that we sense trouble most often when the girls hold back, when they hide prickly truths or split off. Speaking openly, they debate in raunchy terms, embarrass themselves, tread over past trauma, and argue about the “R” word—but never lose our sympathy, and rarely one another's.
During a tense moment near the end of the show (at a point that most closely resembles conventional playwriting), an outsider impinges on their circle and winds up reminding us of the common struggle that unites them: Adults so often groom girls’ speech, whether that means plucking the “like”s from their sentences or ironing out their vocal cadences so phrases don't curl up at the end in Valley Girl fashion. And such linguistic tailoring stresses self-awareness. But on the field, self-awareness curtails goofiness, honesty, open-mindedness.
Rasmussen's bid for DeLappe's work furthers her mission to stage three-dimensional female roles, and The Wolves, in this final (and highly effective) scene, addresses questions of girl-ness head-on. Otherwise, though, the play largely transcends its subject matter. It concerns a group of girls less than it does a group of individuals, who face their own problems, albeit shoulder-to-shoulder.
In fact, one of the most tantalizing aspects of the show is that you can follow one character from start to finish—she and the others chiming in and talking over—for a different experience than if you had locked your attention on someone else (a consequence of the “no star” script). Dialogue evens out toward the end, and as the girls listen more, each reaches her own conclusion. They do not find resolutions; life isn't so neat. They conclude, and in different places—although somehow, at the same time, as a team.
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through May 6