'Wolf Play' review — using the abstract to portray cruel reality
Read our four-star review of Hansol Jung's Wolf Play, currently making its Off-Broadway debut at MCC Theater through March 19 after premiering with Soho Rep.
When we meet the adult characters of Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play, Soho Rep’s production now playing at MCC Theater, we learn too soon that there are no real benevolent actors. Robin (Nicole Villamil), eager to become a mother, has arranged to take custody of a boy she believes is three years old. Her wife is nowhere to be found. Her brother Ryan (Brian Quijada), a hyper-masculine gym owner, is skeptical but too immature to express his concerns without grabbing or referring to his genitals.
By the time the audience meets Peter (Christopher Bannow), a meek, exhausted man who has driven hours to abandon the son he adopted from Korea, we are primed to hate him. We know Peter and his wife have just had a baby and decided they no longer want their adopted son. We know they put an ad online saying the boy is “eager to please.” We know he refers to the child as “Pete Junior,” but he stills plans to desert him with strangers.
When Robin’s wife Ash (Esco Jouléy), a no-nonsense boxer, arrives home and promptly punches Peter in the face, we all but cheer. The small, almost Brechtian break in Wolf Play grabs the audience by the collar and shakes, throwing us out of the world of the play as we wonder, "Do people really do this to their children?"
They do. Jung was inspired by a 2013 Reuters investigation into “disrupted” adoptions, when a parent decides a child — often adopted from another country, as in Wolf Play — is too much and seeks to rehome them without going to court. Robin finds the boy, Wolf (Mitchell Winter), on a Yahoo message board, a real tool Reuters analyzed.
Peter and Robin want to keep the boy out of the foster system, a fate they believe justifies their illicit actions. But Ash and Ryan find Robin’s choice just as inappropriate as Peter’s. “This is grown up? Getting a child from Yahoo?” Ash spits before they bond with the boy.
Wolf is an invention of the boy's own mind, a persona created to protect himself from harm. He eventually reveals his Korean name, Jeenu; when he speaks, Jung designates him a separate character in the script from the narrator-like Wolf. Winter’s Wolf is ageless, childlike in enthusiasm and physicality but hardened by a lifetime of pain lurking around each corner.
In Wolf Play, the greatest commodity is violence, a tool of communication that leaves Jeenu confused: When is it okay to hit and be hit? The violence of the state, its flawed adoption system and hidden fallout, manifests through Ash and Ryan’s boxing, choreographed by fight director Hannah “Rock” Roccisano. Wolf and the audience, meanwhile, take refuge in You-Shin Chen’s scenic design, a cluttered chaos of play objects. In this bubble, a child’s imagination both comforts and charms, concealing the sharp realities that pierce the plush surroundings.
Wolf is a separate entity from the puppet he sometimes connects with, a papier-mâché creature designed by Amanda Villalobos. Jung first describes him in the script as a “boy doll,” and Wolf is his puppeteer.
The Jeenu puppet is not endowed with overflowing life and spirit. But this choice is perhaps intentional: None of the characters in Wolf Play see Jeenu as a real child. Peter has failed in his actions and his guilt; Robin is obsessed with getting motherhood right and making sure others know it; and Ash and Ryan are both too concerned with their own images of power and control to make space for another person to grow. Only when Ash enters does Wolf’s puppet seem enraptured with a more lifelike gaze.
While the life imbued in the puppet feels at times debatable, its death knell is not. The image, near the end of the show, is striking in its simplicity, almost out of place in a show stuffed to the gills with props and with debates that seem theoretical to the audience but are very real to the child lost in their mire. Though it excels in its engagement of the abstract, Wolf Play remains grounded in a cruel reality.
Wolf Play is at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through March 19. Get Wolf Play tickets on New York Theatre Guide.
Photo credit: Mitchell Winter and Nicole Villamil in Wolf Play at MCC Theater. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
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