Review: The Wolves (The Howland Company/Crow’s Theatre)

Amaka Umeh in The Wolves photo by Dahlia KatzSarah DeLappe’s stunning debut play takes the stage … er … soccer pitch in Toronto

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, shortlisted for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, features a demographic who has a very hard time being taken seriously while facing ultra-serious pressures: teenage girls. This teen girl squad is a highly-competitive soccer team, vying for the eye of university scouts while navigating their complicated interpersonal relationships and their place in the world. DeLappe’s adept hand with this complex world makes it hard to believe this is her first play, and its critical reception is justified. This production, by The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre, brims with vitality, humour, and heart; it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in some time.

Directed with aplomb by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, the show is almost a stream of consciousness, with conversations weaving in and out, flitting between the banal and the serious at an almost breakneck pace. So many rapid-fire jokes completely fill the space around each other that the only drawback is the occasional missed line due to laughter. Serious things are taken lightly and light things seriously, and talking behind one another’s backs is pervasive and usually backfires.

The dialogue hits on a fascinating blend of vacuousness and deadly accuracy that seems designed to make us wonder about our prejudices when young people speak and we only hear “like,” “um,” or, worst, the upturned sentence-ender. With constant commentary on a hungover coach representing the unequal treatment given to women’s sports, they’re always a few moments away from identifying the terrible inequality they face as young female-identifying people; however, as one character nihilistically says a second later, “I just don’t get what the big deal is about, like, self-knowledge.”

In the attention-catching opening, where discussions of Cambodian genocide and periods run side by side, one character asks what you’d do if, like, you were a Khmer Rouge operative in his 90s now on trial and you found out actions you believed in years ago were later identified as an atrocity. This exchange speaks to the ongoing negotiation of identity that the characters face. True to that form, DeLappe’s nuanced writing and each actor’s dynamite and distinctive performance prevent any character from being simply a “type.”

Heath V. Salazar, #13, struts their stuff with the over-the-top jokester character who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. As #11, the child of therapists – who doesn’t want to talk about it – Ruth Goodwin exudes an appealing Anna Kendrick quality. Captain #25 (Rachel Cairns) negotiates her burgeoning sexuality with a new (off-stage) girl at school, and the varying degrees to which the other characters understand what this means is delightful. High-achieving goalie #00 (Amaka Umeh) barely speaks, but projects her anxiety physically. #2 (Annelise Hawrylak) has a heart of gold, a concussed head, and a distressingly empty stomach, and Hallie Seline (#8) is the queen of the pop-culture non-sequitur.

Conflict brews between #7 (Aisha Evelyna), the outspoken striker with an older boyfriend, and her best friend #14 (Brittany Kay), who is experiencing the trauma of relationship drift; meanwhile, #7’s position is accidentally threatened by #46, a new, homeschooled girl (Ula Jurecka) who increasingly seems like a soccer prodigy and tries to fit in, but doesn’t quite understand the established language and is viewed with suspicion.

Outside of the feral ballet that marks the transitions between scenes and denotes the passing of time, we see almost nothing of the actual competitive soccer play. That doesn’t matter, because how the characters size each other up and manage their ever-shifting relationships is enough of a beautiful game. For example, a scene where everyone joins in on a song they had to memorize for a school assignment, while #46 smiles in confusion, part of the circle but forever slightly outside it, will hit home with anyone who’s ever felt awkward and alone.

When the nearly endless chatter ceases, moments of silent activity powerfully belie the characters’ frustrations and need to control what seems uncontrollable. The simple set (Jareth Li), a large square of turf on which the audience is strenuously warned away from treading, provides ample space for the team to run around, drill, and lob both balls and pointed commentary back and forth. Sometimes the squad is all together, filling the playing space; other times, pairs draw our focus by weaving in and out of the aisles between the audience.

The ending of the play, after a tragedy occurs, comes the closest to convention. It also brings in a sudden outside eye to the play’s self-contained adolescent world. While this does take away from the wonderful symmetry of the piece, the catharsis and potential glimpse at the squad’s future are still breathtaking.

Go see The Wolves. Please. It’s moving and howlingly funny and as full of life as the most suspenseful soccer game.

Just do them a favour, and stay off the grass.

Details:

  • The Wolves plays at Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Ave) until October 27, 2018.
  • Shows run Monday-Saturday at 8:00PM, with Wednesday matinees at 1:30PM and Saturday matinees at 2:00PM.
  • Tickets are $25-50 and can be purchased in person or online.
  • The play runs 90 minutes, no intermission.

Photo of Amaka Umeh by Dahlia Katz

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