THE WOLVES, Red Line at the Old Fitz, 14 March-14 April 2018. Photography by John Marmaras: above and below - the company
This production of 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist The Wolves is remarkable for a number of reasons. For one thing, the play is the debut work of the then 26-year-old Sarah DeLappe. (The other losing finalist of the year was Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, and the winner was the great Lyn Nottage, so far the only woman to win the Pulitzer twice.)
Prior to its premiere season at Lincoln Center Theatre, DeLappe said of The Wolves: “I wrote the play in silence, in the middle of the night, when most of my roommates were sleeping. My desk was littered with charts, which tracked action and character traits. The writing was like cooking – a bit of parsley here, a sprig of rosemary there. I also thought of the writing as music, an orchestration for nine voices, each representing one of the girls.”
The nine voices of this production – Brenna Harding, Emma Harvie, Sarah Meacham, Sofia Nolan, Michelle Ny, Cece Peters, Zoe Terakes, Nikita Waldron and Nadia Zwecker – are orchestrated as a true ensemble. They begin as a blur of blue and white soccer uniforms and flying pony tails but within minutes vivid individual characters are established, known by their jersey numbers: #25, #00, #14, #46 and so on.
Set somewhere in suburban Middle America, the high school indoor team members gather to warm up and sass each other as they prepare for their next match. Writing of the New York production, Ben Brantley likened the quick-fire, multi-subject, overlapping dialogue to Robert Altman; here in Sydney we are more likely to hear it as Caryl Churchill. Either way, the dazzling choreography of the athletic interchanges and intertwined dialogue is seamless and brilliantly executed by the cast and director Jessica Arthur.
The stage resembles a scruffy, dark and dank, starkly-lit gymnasium back area. The audience – rather than the players – are caged behind fine netting, while the sound track of teen spirit pumps viewers and players alike. (Set and costume design by Maya Keys, lighting: Veronique Benett, sound design: Clemence Williams.) The action happens off-stage: the matches, the ups and downs and events of their lives, while the members of the team come and go, joke, play, argue and discuss those unseen events. In writing it this way DeLappe risked a lot, and it pays off.
The girls rattle on about whatever is preoccupying them in the moment, from how to pronounce Khmer Rouge and whether a 90-year-old guilty of genocide is properly punished by being imprisoned for life, to the icky possibility of getting menstrual blood on the football if you use a pad rather than a tampon. Their coach’s perpetual state of hangover is of passing interest as is the constant spectre of injury and the hope of being spotted by college scouts.
The play and the production avoids cliche and confounds expectations at every turn. The twists and loops of direction and language are adept and exhilarating to see and hear. The playwright was a schoolgirl soccer player – inspired by Brandi Chastain and the US women’s win of the 1999 World Cup – and it’s amazing to learn that only two of this cast had kicked a ball before they began work on the production. You’d never guess!
The Wolves is funny, sad, exciting, unpredictable and, in the end, a moving and topical insight into the real world of adolescent girls. They are instantly recognisable although definitely American – assisted by great work from dialect coach Jennifer White. As the 90-minute play progresses each “player” shines in very different and three-dimensional ways. They are more than credible as soccer players as well as properly irritating and appealing by turn, and captivating human beings.
All in all, this great mob of women has fashioned a uniquely entertaining show whose depths and riches are rare and to be savoured. Go for it! Recommended.