'Wolf Play' review: What keeps a family from falling apart?

Sand colored with beaded black eyes and a throaty howl, the character at the center of “Wolf Play” is and is not what he seems. Wolf, w...

Sand colored with beaded black eyes and a throaty howl, the character at the center of “Wolf Play” is and is not what he seems. Wolf, who serves as the narrator, is a simple yet expressive puppet made of wood, cardboard and papier-mâché in this in-depth and playful exploration of family by Hansol Jung.

The limbs loose and rising a few feet off the floor of the tiny stage at Soho Representative, Wolf depicts a 6-year-old boy who endures one heartbreaking separation after another. The American couple who adopted him from South Korea decide they can’t handle him and their newborn baby’s demands, so they find another family for the boy by advertising on a Yahoo message board .

Such awful and absurd abandon calls for fierce survival instincts. Perhaps that explains why the boy isn’t a boy at all, but a wolf yearning for a pack, as Mitchell Winter, the adult actor wielding the puppet, asserts.

Wolves get bad press, Winter tells the audience, who are seated on either side of the stage. Loners can tear off red hoods, but they don’t hurt for fun. It’s a natural response for family creatures left to fend for themselves, crouching defensively most of the time. “But stories need conflict,” he says, “and, boy, do wolves know how to fight.”

“Wolf Play,” which opened on Monday, offers that “truth is a wobbly thing.” In Jung’s freely associative landscape, this means allowing a puppet to be a boy, a boy to be a wolf, and a wolf to be an actor in a knit cap with pointy ears (costumes are by Enver Chakartash ).

The play directed by Dustin Wills and presented with Ma-Yi Theater Company, depicts a traumatic situation, but with an antic disposition and a clumsy heart. How would a boy react to these injuries if not with grunts, howls and kicks? It seems too much for a being to process, but there is a lightness here that chases away the shadows.

Wolf, a volatile and reactive mishmash, is entrusted by Peter (Aubie Merrylees), the father who adopted him, to Robin (Nicole Villamil) and his wife, Ash (Esco Jouléy). Robin is eager to become a mother, while Ash is a boxer preparing to turn pro and reluctant to be distracted like a child. Ryan (Brandon Mendez Homer), who is Robin’s brother and Ash’s trainer, seems open to adoption – until Wolf’s position in the peloton seems to threaten his own.

If the play has a love affair, it’s between Wolf and Ash, a prototypical fighter with a tough exterior and a soft center. Ash is non-binary and is the first person the boy speaks out loud to. “Wolf Play” suggests that there is an animality that connects us that transcends gendered social scripts; kinship and love are wild and respect no rules. Peter, however, objects to the lack of a conventional father in the boy’s new home.

The ensemble’s performances are uniformly strong and appropriate for the intimate scale of production. Winter’s dual feat as an energetic narrator and sensitive puppeteer is so nimble that the boy often seems like a separate living being, attaching one moment, a terror the next (Amanda Villalobos is the puppet maker).

But making a wolf a protagonist becomes a delicate gesture when the expression of inner feelings is limited to encyclopedic facts about the species. (“Wolves are cautious, masters of survival.” “Wolves fear being alone.”) Although Jung’s narrator seems to promise access to the emotional core of the story, the taxonomy can only illuminate too much.

Wills’ production has the exuberant restlessness of a pencil sketch stuck in the fridge, chaotic but underpinned by neat internal logic. A rolling door, mismatched chairs, and blue balloons (from Wolf’s “welcome home” party) are traveling elements of You-Shin Chen’s set. Lighting by Barbara Samuels makes lavish use of tone and darkness, while sound design by Kate Marvin inspires the squealing quality of a child’s cry.

If the stories need conflict, as Wolf suggests, the decisive ones here – a fight in the ring, the inevitable custody battle – ultimately feel fabricated and somewhat out of place. There is an unruly quality to Jung’s idea of ​​what theater can be, jagged and unattached, shy and dreamlike. It’s moving to see this potential unleashed on the vagaries of love, even if it’s not so easy to tame.

wolf game
Through March 20 at Soho Rep, Manhattan; sohorep.org. Duration: 1h40.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'Wolf Play' review: What keeps a family from falling apart?
'Wolf Play' review: What keeps a family from falling apart?
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