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Wolf in the River

The prolific playwright Adam Rapp explores what it means to be destroyed.

Kate Thulin as Tana in Adam Rapp's Wolf in the River at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

As a dramatist, Adam Rapp veers back and forth between naturalism and the extreme opposite. In his more successful plays, he explores the wrenching depths of human emotion in ways that few of his contemporaries can even come close to. In his less successful works, he allows his imagination to run a bit too wild with chaotic results.

His latest, Wolf in the River at The Flea Theater is an indelicate mixture of the two. Over the course of 100 mysterious minutes, Rapp, who also directs, presents a handful of scenes that are among his very best, alongside an assortment of seriously confounding characters and plot contrivances that don't add up to much.

Described by the Flea as "an impressionistic glimpse into the poetry of broken people," Wolf in the River is the story of Tana (Kate Thulin), a 16-year-old young woman whom we first meet stark naked in the middle of the woods, desperate to cover herself up. She is dead, we learn from a narrator (the sinewy Jack Ellis), swallowed up by a river and eaten by wolves. Or was she?

Tana's life to this moment is the center of Rapp's play. She and her brother, the dishonorably discharged veteran Dothan (William Apps), live in the impoverished backwoods of the south with a strange tribe of addicts. This cultlike group is run by Monty (a street-tough Xanthe Paige), Dothan's girlfriend who collects the blood of her peers through medical ports attached to their arms. Tana's big dream is to escape and find Debo (Maki Borden), a young man from Illinois who loves her from afar.

Xanthe Paige and Jack Ellis costar in Wolf in the River by Adam Rapp at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)

The actors, particularly Ellis and Paige, bring a fierce intensity to their roles, like sticks of dynamite that have just been lit. They manage to make the whole experience entertaining, at least, even if after the first few scenes the enigmatic quality of their characters and the play itself becomes wearisome. It's intriguing to wonder how Tana, who is so unlike the people with whom she lives, ended up in this compound, where the citizens eat flowers and make love to sex dolls. It's even more fascinating when we try to decipher the identities of the "Lost Souls," who move around the periphery of the set in identical burlap costumes (by Michael Hili and Hallie Elizabeth Newton) while chanting ritualistically. But the answers never come, and Wolf in the River ends up feeling more like an overstuffed, undercooked stew of atrocities than the communication of a clear idea.

That's not to say it's entirely a loss. Amid the gratuitousness is a collection of moments that rank as top-tier Rapp. Perhaps the strongest example is a flashback to the meeting of Tana and Debo, a deliciously flirty sequence that finds her sunbathing on a dock as he maneuvers around her on a skiff. Not only is the scene beautifully written and imaginatively staged using the whole of Arnulfo Maldonado's bombed-out environmental set, it is performed with an effortless charm and sensitivity absent from the rest of the proceedings. Borden, who glides around the room as if actually paddling a boat, has a lovely chemistry with Thulin, and it's hard not to wish there was more to their relationship than this one instant.

While it's easy to call the nudity, bloody violence, and unsettling tribal intonations "edgy," the true edginess comes in the climactic moments, where Thulin is required to dangle perilously from a rope over our heads. Her strong, brave performance is the production's highlight, a grounded center in a distractingly frenzied world.

Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis, and Mike Swift dangle over the audience in Wolf in the River at the Flea Theater.
(© Hunter Canning)