BWW Review: WOLF PLAY at Company One Theatre
With director Summer L Williams firmly planted at the helm (and occasionally keeping tally of attendance at the door), Company One Theatre has entered the 2020s with all cannons firing. Full blast. Their target? The redundancy of the contemporary theatre scene in Boston. Each cannon is eruditely aimed, poised to dismantle the structures of mundane, middle-class realism or dated works clinging by threads to their decomposing canonization, and herald in a new era where theatre can captivate, engage, and enrich audiences in ways that no other art form will ever be able to achieve. I am wary of throwing around superlative language in reviews, (all art is subjective, do I really hold any superior expertise on this matter?) but Jared Bowen recently called one of Lyric Stage's shows "the first must-see show of the year." For me, Company One's production of Hansol Jung's Wolf Play is that. Especially since the company's partnership with the Boston Public Library has allowed all tickets to be sold at "pay-what-you-want" prices (ranging from $0-$50), I am disappointed to be catching this show only a week before closing, as I would most likely otherwise be returning to see it again.
For a long time within their history, Company One has cornered the market in Boston for selecting those cutting-edge new works that are able to effectively spark conversations and juxtaposing them against each other in ways that are both productive and incendiary. Hats off to Director of New Work, Ilana M Brownstein, as well as National New Play Network (NNPN) Producer in Residence, Jasmine Brooks, and the entire administrative staff for selecting, through NNPN, such a well-crafted text for a rolling premiere. Jung, who may be best known in Boston for her equally nuanced play, Cardboard Piano, does not stoop to begin with a message, as seems to be in vogue for playwrights right now. She does not set out to teach us anything in a certain, straightforward lecture subdivided into all-too-interchangeable dialogue. Instead, the genesis of her play seems to center around the hypothetical. As one character explains in a moment of meta-theatricality, the evening is nothing more than a series of 'what if?'s. What if a young boy was adopted from Korea by a "not-future-oriented" white couple who have given up on having any biological children of their own? What if, once that couple is able to conceive, the boy is again put up for adoption? What if he is adopted by a lesbian couple, and his adoptive father is not entirely thrilled with the prospect of two women raising a boy? By asking these questions and not providing answers, Jung has effectively done what so many playwrights and their commissioners claim to want. She has created a work with the potential to generate conversations that lead to growth and change. Set against the thorough dramaturgical work one can expect from Company One, the production introduces issues within the idea of transracial adoption, America's systems for adoption, and the thin line between "vulnerability and violence".
Jung wields language in a way that is grating on the soul, slinging words like 'deranged', 'feral', and 'demented', at the character of a young boy, evidently navigating trauma. The universality of her characters' cruelty and misunderstandings broaden the scope of that which the play comments on, inviting in our timely friends, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia. However, just as the play explains to us, "the truth is jiggly", and therefore no behavior is dubiously portrayed or condemned in anticipation. Instead, we see on stage the flawed, destructive, unfeeling coldness that is strenuous to witness from anyone but ourselves. And it is shone at us through an unrelenting beam.
While Williams has rendered an excellent production, perhaps the strengths of the piece are best highlighted by examining its rocky start. At top of show, a spiel by an actor in character plods through the tired jokes about cellphones in the theatre (we need to get over this trope and stop writing those). Soon, there is a half-hearted attempt at audience participation (maybe one of my current theatrical pet-peeves. If you want us engaging, make us engage. Don't drop an erroneous prop gag in the middle of the narrative in the name of interaction, especially if there is then no follow-through). And then, perhaps the greatest disservice to the piece, it is revealed that our protagonist, Jeenu (who is played by an austerely adorable bunraku puppet by Amanda Gibson) has been sitting, lifeless, under a black sheet before our own eyes since the house opened. The puppet, who is otherwise entirely, effectively animated throughout the course of the play thanks to inventive staging by Roxanna Myhrum and a uniformly committed imagination established amongst the whole cast, is introduced to us as a ventriloquist dummy. He seems pale. He seems creepy. And perhaps most difficult to shake, he seems like an inanimate object.
Once he is in the hands of Wolf, a physicalization of his inner-voice played by Minh-Anh Day, he is a delight. The weighty, trenchant evening is speckled with reminders of the joys of simple playfulness. We cannot help but giggle as we watch a puppet slurp singular spoonfuls of cereal or change the channel perfunctorily with a remote control. As an emotional backbone to the play, Minh-Anh Day is ferocious and mischievous with all of the earnestness and naïveté of an 8 year old boy. Somehow he grapples with the abstract idea of trauma in an incredibly tangible way. Inés De La Cruz is equally palpably evocative, channeling a deep sense of the bewilderment, selfish disappointment, and exhaustion that comes with being suddenly thrust into the role of parent. She is notably dynamic in the sense of growth she lends to Robin, Jeenu's adoptive mother. Ash, Jeenu's other mother, is played by Tonasia Jones, a reliably electric presence on stage. She lends the character a protected-ness and loving defensiveness that suggest a history and depth which exists beyond the language Jung has published. Perhaps, it is she, amongst all the actors, who delivers the most fervid scenes with the small puppet. Adrian Peguero as 'Dumbass Ryan' is despicable, devolving from the 'harmless' misogyny of an overbearing clown into a true villain.
In recognizable Company One fashion, the production team is hewed together with some of the most recognizable names in their respective fields alongside newcomers and those just establishing their careers. Janie E Howland's set takes cues from the geometric rigidity of the venue, establishing a hard-lined world of soft grey. Karly Foster, a comparatively fresh face in Boston, picks up on the strictly delineated space in her costumes through enviable colorblocking- it never becomes high fashion, but I was certainly taking notes of what new pairings I may have in my closet for this spring. The reality of this principle harshness transposing itself to Kat C Zhou's lighting design is unfortunately distracting and overwhelmingly literal, however, her lighting of a climactic boxing match is nothing short of cinematic. The flashing lights combined with Kimberleigh A Holman's boxing sequence may be the first time in a while a theatrical production has set my heart racing.
Overall, the play is a perfect summation of what audiences have come to expect from Summer L Williams' work; an incredible breadth of respect for the narratives being portrayed, an almost imperceptible call to action, and an inviting sense of warmth that seems to say, "we have a lot to learn, but let's start now."
Wolf Play runs through February 29 at Rabb Hall at the Boston Public Library (Central). More information here.
Photo credit: Andrew James Wang