“I am not what you think you see. I am the wolf.” The Wolf is a narrator, an animating spirit, a central metaphor–and the hidden soul of the child at the center of Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play. Embodied by a blank-faced papier-mache puppet in heartbreakingly tiny blue sneakers, voiced by the Wolf (Mitchell Winter), Pete is a little boy, adopted from Korea by a family in Arizona (also known as Junior because his father is Peter as well). He is six years old, and maybe his life as one of “two American Peters” is just fine for him or maybe it’s not. It’s not fine for his parents, who’ve just had a second, biological child and aren’t holding it together well at all. “Something has to give” and that something turns out to be Junior, whose mother posts him as available for a pretty-clearly-not-legal readoption on the internet that seems more like PetFinder than a safe way to place a child. She also advertises him as three years old rather than six.
It turns out Junior is old enough to remember his Korean name, Jeenu, which means he’s old enough to remember being uprooted and shuttled to a new family not once but twice, and his third family is pretty different from his second. Where Peter Senior (Aubie Merrylees) and his never-seen wife, Katie, are a financially struggling straight nuclear family from Arizona, Robin (Nicole Villamil) and Ash (Esco Jouléy) are a queer couple in San Francisco. Robin works for a videogame company and Ash is about to make their professional boxing debut (coached by Robin’s brother, Ryan [Brandon Mendez Homer]). (The fact that director Dustin Willis has cast a white actor as Peter, while Robin and Ash appear to be an interracial couple, adds another subtle layer of difference, not dictated by the script.)
And what everyone in the play thinks they see when they look at Jeenu/Peter/Junior/Wolf is something different, colored by their own terribly impure motives: Robin sees, first, her deepest desire come to life, a desire she felt slipping away in the face of Ash’s focused ambitions and then, as she struggles to parent this fragile, complicated child, her insecurities and failures as a mother and a partner. Robin thinks she’s doing the right thing by “rescuing” this child no one wants, but she’s doing it in a way that both her wife and her brother think is selfish and dangerous.
Ash sees, first, a distraction from their single-minded focus on their upcoming high-stakes fight, and then a fragile alliance based on a growing understanding of Jeenu that Robin doesn’t seem to share–but also, that Ash doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to share with Robin, whether out of their resentment of Robin for making this decision without really considering what it would mean for Ash, their terror at their growing love for this child, or their own anxiety about the looming make-or-break career opportunity. Which is also pretty make-or-break for Ryan, who’s both worried about and furious at his sister for putting all of them in this situation, while also trying to impose his own brand of “discipline” on a child that isn’t his own, and maintaining a secret line of communication with Peter, who sees Ryan as the responsible man in the situation.
And Peter Senior sees his own failure as a father and then as a husband, and then a chance to reinvent himself and repair his own mistakes. It might have been Katie (who, though unseen, comes off as the real villain of the piece in a way that feels like a bit of a copout) who pushed through this readoption idea, but Peter was willing to go along with it…at least until he finds out that Ash isn’t the cis straight father he’d imagined, and that they’re “depriving” his boy of a father. (This is an issue for Peter, but otherwise a simple background fact to the play-world, as is Ash’s non-binary gender identity.)
We only get a few words out of Jeenu-as-himself, rather than mediated through the filter of the Wolf, talking about the nature of wolves–but “wolves suck at being alone,” and, not surprisingly, the Wolf is lonely and scared. Wolves and Katies hate each other; wolves and Peters have ambivalent feelings, but Katie and Peter were his family, and wolves need family, so now what?
Mitchell Winter’s performance anchors the play, especially in his contrasts: between the tentative and abrupt movements of the puppet and the more fluid and energized physicality of the Wolf; between the opacity of the puppet’s face (Amanda Villalobos designed him) and the Wolf’s fierce intelligence and observations and driven need to connect directly with the audience. (It’s subtle, but I think that in the few moments where Jeenu, not the Wolf, is speaking directly to one of the play’s adults, Winter lays a different accent over his light native Australian inflections.) Because while the adult characters all operate in a basically realist environment, the Wolf, both narrator and character, actor human and animal spirit, is something else. Among the rest of the cast, Jouley stands out, partly because of the nuanced evolution of Ash’s relationship with Jeenu, which is less true of the other characters. And Villamil, too, is at her strongest when Robin is arguing with or talking about Ash.
One of the key features of the piece is the way that spaces overlay and intertwine with each other: a number of scenes take place simultaneously in Robin and Ash’s kitchen, Ryan’s kitchen, and Peter’s kitchen, and then the boxing ring layers itself over that domestic setting. (So, for example, Ryan is on the phone with the mother who, in objection to her daughter’s marriage, hasn’t spoken to Robin in years, while Robin sits at the table in the same literal space.) The device feels a little manufactured, especially when both Ryan and Peter are having one-sided dialogues with offstage characters, but also allows for an instant comparison among the ways the different permutations of family interact.
Director Dustin Willis and set designer You-Shin Chen have set up the Soho Rep space with audience rising sharply on both sides, like a boxing arena (the back row puts you quite close to the ceiling), but then filled the risers with a motley array of domestic chairs, so the audience is always also inhabiting one of the kitchens where most of the day-to-day action takes place. (Even the boxing ring drops into the center of a space anchored by refrigerator, sink, and stove at its corners.) And an open trap door from which the Wolf emerges at the beginning of the play remains a constant, slightly ominous hole in the space’s fabric.
That overlapping of space is mirrored in the way the metaphors so thoroughly inform its dramaturgy (even in the little details; Peter’s last name is “Hunt” and Robin’s “Shepherd”). From its frame in the world of storytelling–the wolf as an “actor human”–to the boxing ring that recurs as a courtroom when Peter tries to get his son back, to the wolf itself, lonely and loyal, fierce and endangered all at once: the play operates around this duality of desire and despair, of good impulses and bad ones, of aggression as violence and violence as profession, of the families we are given and the families we create. And the boy at the center is a blank slate, a literal puppet without the power to put himself where he needs to be, to advocate for himself. The tragedy of the play is that his fierce wolf spirit is under threat, leaving his agency-less body behind.