Review: Wolf Play Tells the Story of an Unconventional Adoption
Hansol Jung's play makes its New York debut at Soho Rep.
The cynic in me suspects that the spate of pandemic pet adoptions will inevitably result in a glut of orphaned cats and dogs as the neurotics who thought they could fill the voids in their souls with animals realize that they are not equipped to care for them. That's reprehensible enough, but what if that whole scenario played out not with a Labradoodle, but a six-year-old child? That is the basis of Hansol Jung's emotionally gripping Wolf Play, now performing at Soho Rep. in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company.
It's about Jeenu (Mitchell Winter), a 6-year-old (or so his legal papers claim) Korean child adopted by Katie (who does not appear onstage) and Peter (Aubie Merrylees), a white American couple. In a flourish of humility, Peter decides to rename Jeenu "Pete Junior," but persistent behavioral problems and the arrival of his own biological child convinces Peter to "re-home" his namesake — not through traditional channels, but via a group on Yahoo.com. Figuring that Jeenu is in danger if he stays listed on the Internet, Robin (Nicole Villamil) is quick to take him in — so quick that she neglects to tell her spouse, Ash (Esco Jouléy), before she agrees. Peter travels from Arizona to San Francisco to deliver the child, but soon becomes uneasy when he realized that "Junior" will grow up in a home without a father — at least, not in the traditional sense.
In truth, Ash is ten times butcher than Peter, even if Robin thinks of them as her wife. Non-binary in every sense, Ash is preparing for their professional boxing debut against a male boxer. Their coach is Robin's brother, Ryan (Brandon Mendez Homer). Ash really wants to put all their focus on training, which becomes a real problem when Jeenu immediately takes a shine to them. Before saying anything to Robin, Jeenu tells Ash his secret: That's he's not actually a little boy, but a wolf.
Jeenu's belief that he is a wolf is clearly the coping mechanism of a child who has been twice orphaned, and Winter embodies that resilience as the wolf — a narrator who steps into the role of Jeenu while also commenting on the action like the host of a nature documentary (Winter's Australian accent makes this aspect of his job particularly compelling). On top of giving an emotionally resonant and completely charming performance, Winter expertly manipulates Amanda Villalobos's Jeenu puppet — a stick figure with magnets on his hands and feet that we quickly accept as a child.
Director Dustin Wills smartly employs a MacGyver theater aesthetic that facilitates such suspension of disbelief by inviting us to use our imaginations. You-Shin Chen's scenic design resembles a construction site, with elements flying in and out through simple, exposed pulleys. Barbara Samuels illuminates the space with scoop lights, fresnels, and the occasional practical light (one scene cleverly takes place by refrigerator light). Kate Marvin's sound design mixes live elements like a ringside bell with recorded cues and distorted amplification. Enver Chaka-ash's contemporary costumes ground this occasionally magical story in stark reality. The result is a staging that leaps through time and space, bringing the audience with it at every step. Each moment seems to be invented right in front of us, and that kind of furious improvisation is a fair representation of what parenting is really like.
Excellent performances do the rest: Villamil conveys Robin's genuine nervousness at being a first-time parent, while Jouléy's stoic presence is simultaneously intimidating and alluring. Homer stealthily delivers the most surprising turn in the story. And even though he is playing the story's ostensible villain, Merrylees gives an empathetic performance that helps us understand how a person could wind up doing such a terrible thing.
Over the course of 100 minutes, we fall in love with Jeenu's makeshift family, and we hope desperately for a happy ending. Would you believe that Soho Rep., which was recently home to the most brutal show I have seen this season, is now hosting what often feels like this season's most heartwarming (and heart-wrenching) family comedy?
Of course, Wolf Play defies such easy categorization, and Jung creates real suspense around how her story will resolve. By peeling back the artifice of the theater and leveling directly with the audience, Jung, Wills, and company earn and keep our trust. In the theater, that can be as difficult as taming a wolf.