“The truth and the lie are tricky little fish ain’t they?”
In a nightmarish world drifting between hallucinations, myth, and reality, Adam Rapp’s new play Wolf in the River is not short on preternatural atmosphere. But by constantly shifting storytelling styles the aggregate impact of this yarn gets diluted. However, there are vivid performances and haunting moments that will still grab you and give you pause.
The play, also directed by Rapp, functions like a camera lens moving in and out of focus—sometimes it presents a narrative, linear story in concrete terms, in other moments it all becomes hazy and mysterious. The fantastical nature of the storytelling makes it hard to parse truth from imagination. But what is clear is that the storyteller, referred to as The Man (Jack Ellis), has the cadence of a Southern preacher and seems to summon spirits from the river, confer with ghosts, and pace and snarl like a caged animal. He sets about to tell us the tale of Tana, a teenager mostly alone in this world.
Tana (Kate Thulin) has little going for her in her life. She finally connects with another person when she meets Debo (Maki Borden), a visiting teen, who passes by her on a skiff in the river as she’s sunning herself on a dilapidated pier. After two years of teenage flirtation and long-distance phone calls between them, she wonders if there’s a chance for her outside this dank, impoverished world she lives in. Her mother and father are long gone—either through death or abandonment. She eagerly waited for her brother Dothan (William Apps) to return from Afghanistan. Dothan returned in body, but never in spirit. The now silent Dothan dates the ferocious Monty (Xanthe Paige). Monty seems to lead the pack of feral creatures in this world, bossing around everyone including Tana, alongside Pin (Mike Swift) and Aikin (Karen Eilbacher).
Staged in the round with a dirt pit in the center of the room filled with broken toys (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado), a rundown refrigerator which throws light on scenes from time to time, and the seated audience creating the perimeter of “The River,” this is a place where dreams go to die. So it seems Rapp is most interested in posing the question of whether there can ever come a moment of possibility where one could change their fate when it seems everything is against you.
When this is Rapp’s focus the play is galvanizing. There are breathtaking sequences staged by Rapp and searing performances from the cast. Sweaty, desperate moments of Tana fighting with nature, with her peers, and with her world give this play its emotional core. This raw, bleak struggle is practically in your lap and you feel her every twitchy moment thanks to Thulin’s performance and Rapp’s immersive staging.
With the imperious nature of royalty and the cutting disregard of a high school mean girl Paige’s Monty dominates the stage whenever she steps upon it. Paige is such a charismatic performer it seems irrelevant what she is saying because she commands attention with just a look. She’s mesmerizing to watch.
Rapp finds creative ways to convert the dirt-filled space into far-away fantasy worlds in a moment and in one music-oriented sequence with Paige it’s an exuberant and much-needed release. However, when the narrative shifts away from Tana and Monty, it takes some of our engagement with it. Although we are surrounded by performers in the “lost choir,” we only hear one of these mysterious creatures tell their story. I presume these are the ghosts who have emerged from The River representing the many lives lost here before Tana’s time. The one tale involves racial violence in the 60s and it comes as quickly as it goes (and although we are in a Southern setting it feels tacked on and in doing so dismissive of the subject matter).
In addition, Rapp, as director, undermines the work a bit in the pre-show business. One of the members of the lost choir spends the first 15 minutes while the audience is being seated rolling around in the dirt in the center of the stage like a happy pig while the other lost choir members circle the room. Since the show is staged in and around the audience, when the cast pant, sing, and pace behind you we sense the tension instantly. But the silliness of the pre-show makes it quite hard to take the show seriously, and some goodwill is lost initially while you try to re-commit to the actual endeavor at hand.
But once the play gets going and we get a grip on our surroundings, Rapp’s kinetic writing and intense poetry flourishes.
Wolf in the River is on until 2nd May 2016. Click here for tickets.