The Youthful Circle of THE WOLVES
The rituals of youth have long been a subject of fascination, popping up throughout various forms of societal storytelling – for me, the version that comes easily to mind, often depicted on film, is the time-honored ‘coming of age’ movie which tends to follow an individual (or pair) of adolescents through some series of traumas leading to the revelation that their adult lives may already upon them, whether they like it or not. Key adult ‘problems’ usually accompany this revelation: a pregnancy; a parent’s divorce; a death. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I was most often faced with a depiction of a disaffected youth, fiercely nihilistic, blasé in the face of pending reality. Cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and sex with dangerously hard bodies – this was my adolescence, as represented through movies, television, ads. That this had absolutely no correlation with my actual experience as a teenager seemed hardly the point. Maybe I just wasn’t doing it right.
In Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, now running at The Duke on 42nd through September 24th in a brightly lit Playwrights Realm production, we come face to face (and quad to quad) with a new kind of youth – the ‘hyper-affected’ as opposed to a ‘disaffected’ variety. Seated along the sidelines of a strip of electric green field turf, we witness nine young women, verbose, thoughtful yet insensitive, politically and intellectually competitive, as they gather to stretch for the first of six (within the frame of this play) indoor arena soccer games. Over the course of our watching them, they will emerge as complex and intriguing individuals (the play does not name them, instead giving them numbers on their backs, which ultimately makes their emerging character traits more abstract in a good way). They want relatively realistic things. To play a different position. To be more in control of the group. To be accepted. To be cool. To go to Miami for the Finals and not Tulsa. A few of them discuss sex, but it’s not a primary topic. Nor are their bodies – briefly explored in a casually graphic discussion of menstrual blood, but considered more of an side-bar annoyance than a focus.
They probably go to a fancier school than I did when I grew up. As a high school baseball player and throughout the countless hours spent throwing a ball back and forth, stretching, warming up, jousting for attention (or avoiding it for fear of the quick pivot into ridicule), I don’t really remember what we talked about, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t politics or world events. School, probably. Music, girls, what we did last night. Of course, we were young men – boys, I suppose – and while I harbor no doubt that the conversations across the field where the female athletes prepared for battle must have been quite different, none of us, boys and girls alike, were outwardly worldly. At the time, to have an strong opinion on, say Khmer Rouge (from the play, #7 says “We don’t do genocides until senior year” in response to her concerned teammate’s astonishment that she doesn’t know about Cambodia) would have marked us as outliers, or simply gone unnoticed.
Within this context, I make the argument that DeLappe presents us with a wholly updated picture of youth, in which social awareness has supplanted willful ignorance. The competitive and constantly shifting pecking order within their social hierarchy remains ever brutal, but the battleground is changed. This, along with the fact that we see nine (and eventually ten) women on stage, is what makes The Wolves a unique signpost within the world of new plays.
Structurally, the play functions through a series of additions and subtractions (of bodies present) over the course of the six “weeks” that the audience is privy to. The majority of its drama is mined by combining variable pattern + linear time. The pattern consists of the warm-up ritual (high knees, butt kicks, high knees plus butt kicks), stretching, passing the ball back and forth. We never see an exact duplication of the pattern; instead, we leap in and out of it, experiencing it piecemeal (stretching on week one, passing on week three), but always arriving at the same hard cut once the whistle blows, bouncing us over the action of the game into the next week. The kinesthetic response to observing the players in constant motion provides a surprising amount of satisfaction – they don’t even really need to be talking to each other for us to remain generally engaged. DeLappe takes full advantage, recognizing that this environment allows her characters to exist and evolve organically, in a naturalistic way. They don’t need to drive a plot, per say. More so, they emerge via the progression of the system, allowing us to know them in a way that doesn’t rely on expository dialogue. The confident direction, by Lila Neugebauer, is clean, active, and avoids (for the most part) over-staging or emphasizing certain moments for the sake of “clarity.”
The design also feels right (the set is by Laura Jellinek, costumes by Asta Bennie Hostetter, lights by Lap Chi Chu, and sound by Beth Lake & Stowe Nelson) – a strip of lights over both sides of the stage provides harsh illumination, and the only deviation (a sequence during which the ‘game’ is played, but with no actors present) provides an borderline disturbing sound and lightscape that evokes a literal battleground.
The Wolves is mostly – to evoke terminology that is fairly commonly used in playwriting lingo although doesn’t have a definitive definition – a circle play. My version of what this means is that despite the play’s linearity, if you took out a scene and replaced it with another scene from elsewhere in the play, it wouldn’t fundamentally change how the play works. You might have to change a line or two to make it logical, but it wouldn’t disrupt the functionality of the world or information flow. (As opposed to, say, Hamlet, wherein if you played the second-to-last scene first, I’d argue the audience would be hopelessly and forever lost after that. (I am now suddenly interested in the idea of a non-linear Hamlet. I’m sure it’s been done though.))
A few other like-structured plays that spring to mind as generally circular are Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, also playing out linear form and relying on its cut points and jumps in time to modulate the overall narrative tension, and Beth Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds. Circular plays, while wonderfully freed of not having to progress or behave like a traditional “play” play, have a tendency of being rather hard to end (as you might imagine, given their desire to complete a circle rather than arrive at an end point), and The Wolves, aiming for catharsis over a less dynamic completion, ends with a final scene that feels a touch more manipulated than those that came before it. Like another Annie Baker play, The Flick, its audience has become so well-tuned to mining small details (who has a cold this week?) that a culminating scene that contains more recognizable dramatic stakes comes as a bit of a shock and takes some time to recalibrate to. This should be read as observation rather than critique – the finale here is extremely well-written and carefully handled, and I’m not sure that avoiding an emotional climax would have necessarily proved more satisfying. And happily, the ending point does not betray any of the players by ‘paying off’ their more recognizable characteristics for the sake of an ending – we are provided no resolution. The season goes on. The Wolves, for the most part, remain – not as individuals tearing each other apart as I first assumed from the title, but as a pack, evolving, living, feeding, traveling, and waging battle together.