By Patsy Isenberg
On Feb.8, a Pulitzer Prize drama finalist for 2017, “The Wolves,” opened at The Flint Repertory Theatre (The Rep) in the 100-seat Bower Theater.
Its all-female cast gives the audience a fly-on-the-wall observation of a nine-girl high school soccer team at practice. The only other character is referred to as “Soccer Mom” and she doesn’t appear until near the end of the play. The team members are never referred to by name (except in one instance near the end) and their characters are listed in the program by the numbers on their jerseys. On The Rep’s website, the play is listed as “recommended for teens and adults,” a marker that became important to several audience members who departed early from the Saturday matinee.
“The Wolves” is a modern drama written by 29-year-old Sarah DeLappe. In Michael Mellini’s interview with DeLappe and Vanessa Stalling, the director of the production at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, when asked about her inspiration for the play, DeLappe describes an art exhibit of contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa she visited. She said she was struck by the difference between the people visiting the exhibit and the people in those countries who created the art she’d just seen.
“‘On the subway back to my apartment, I started writing the first scene of a play where these simultaneous conversations are happening about the Khmer Rouge and the efficacy of tampons on a soccer field. That I figured out quickly that these characters were on a soccer field came from a question: ‘What could be further away from those humanitarian disasters than a bunch of American suburbanites on an indoor soccer field warming up for a game?’
“I started thinking of the characters as if they were in a war movie, but instead of young men in the trenches preparing for battle, they were young women on AstroTurf preparing for a soccer game,’” DeLappe said in Mellini’s interview.
“The Wolves” has been described as “Altmanesque,” a term derived from work by filmmaker Robert Altman, who was known for using highly mobile camera work and lenses to enhance the action taking place on screen.
This translates to the stage in the use of dialogue and the unique set design. The dialogue is organic, in that the characters are often all talking at once, just as you would hear in real life. The set design is minimalist and done in “Black Box” style where all of the walls on stage are black, with no design or backdrops.
The only additional visuals include a net on one side and the bright green AstroTurf the actors are standing on. Not only that, but the audience in Bower Theater’s intimate arrangement is seated right on the stage, just a few feet from the actors and on the same level. It’s unexpected entering the theatre, but being that close to the actors allows the audience to better see the facial expressions of the characters.
Local high schools, girls’ soccer teams honored
Artistic Director of The Rep Michael Lluberes and Community Administrator Jason Briggs gave a short introduction at the beginning of the Friday, Feb. 8 performance.
“Throughout the run of the show, we’re going be featuring different area high school varsity soccer programs and clubs as well. Tonight we’re going to give a big round of applause to Jessyca Mathews and the Carmen Ainsworth Cavaliers,” Lluberes said.
Mathews, a UM-Flint graduate, poet, writer and 2018 recipient of the Michigan High School English Teacher of the Year award, served as the play’s soccer consultant.
Lluberes also drew the audience’s attention to Elma Riley, president of the Great Lakes Women’s Soccer League, who was in attendance that night.
The play opens with most of the team’s players coming out onto their indoor soccer field on a Saturday where they start doing their usual synchronized warm up exercises and chatting away. The audience is thrust into multiple conversations which can be somewhat difficult to follow at first. They are talking back and forth about things like tampons versus pads, debating the situation they heard about in social studies concerning members of the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia found guilty of genocide, their coach and his usual Saturday morning hangovers.
They sometimes tease each other mercilessly, gossiping and talking about other events in their lives. It’s all happening fast and the girls on stage display high energy through their warm up.
This opening scene sets the pace for the rest of the show. The general dialogue and action throughout most of the play follows this same quick, organic pace punctuated by soccer practice. Occasionally, the action is broken up by laps around the field when some or all of them disappear momentarily. Sometimes quieter dialogue takes place between just a few of the characters.
Distinct characters colorfully emerge
The story takes place over six weeks and gradually unfolds to a surprising emotional climax at the end of the play. The characters are well developed during the 90 minutes of the performance, with their distinct personalities beginning to emerge early on through their interactions with one another. We never learn their names; they are only known by the numbers on their jerseys.
The team captain, #25 (played by Farrell Sloan Tatum), does her job effectively barking orders.
One girl, #13 (played by Meredith Deighton), has taken on a stoner persona, almost always talking in a deep voice and is hardly ever serious.
Then there’s the goalie, #00 (played by Curr’esha Beatty), who runs off to throw up whenever she gets uptight. She’s quiet in the beginning of the play.
The striker, #7 (played by Patty Maloney), feels threatened by the new homeschooled member because the captain says the girl is “really good.” She’s also dating a college guy and her dad is an attorney.
One member, #2 (played by Alexis Harvey), is a “bleeding heart” who feels the need to correct any girl who sees a different side to things but otherwise kind and innocent. She’s been described as “concussive” too, getting hit in the head a lot and, at one point, gets a nosebleed.
Seeming to enjoy debates but holding back her knowledge is #8 (played by Taylor Morrow).
#14 (played by Amy Nadal) is part Armenian, but has been in the U.S. most of her life. She is a friend of #7, the girl who “gets around.”
And there’s a new girl who shows up late to practice that they all seem to have opinions about. She’s #46 (played by Claire Jolliffe) and is the homeschooled Player #7 feels threatened by. Many of the team find the fact that she was homeschooled weird. They’ve also heard that she lives in a “yoghurt” which #46 later corrects them on – it’s a yurt, which is new to them.
The role of “soccer mom” is played by Beth Guest. She is a Michigan resident who works at Oakland University as a special lecturer teaching theater courses. Guest recently appeared in “Assassins” at The Rep, which ran during November, 2018.
Cast include many with Michigan connections
Most of the young actors in the play have a Michigan connection and there are some University of Michigan-Flint graduates among them. Beatty (#00) was a theatre performance major, Tatum (#25) was a fine arts major, and Harvey (#2) was a theatre and French double major. Harvey was also born and raised in Flint and participated in the Flint Youth Theatre Drama School and productions when she was young.
In keeping with the all-female cast in this production, a female director, Kathryn Walsh, was chosen to guide the cast and crew to make it all happen here in Flint. Despite not being a musical, there was some choreography involved. Overall, it isa lively, energetic production.
When talking about her experience directing “The Wolves,” Walsh touched on the honesty of the show, “The kinds of conversations that we (women) can have, which frankly are a lot like the conversations you hear in the play…the way that we talk our way into who we are in the world…we can talk and listen at the same time,” she said. “And there was no ego in the space…which made the process of moving the play forward really easy… We took the soccer that Jessyca taught us and the words of Sarah DeLappe…it just worked,” she added.
Play’s vivid language led to matinee walkouts
The play’s earthy language appears to have created an issue for some in the audience. At the Saturday matinee performance on Feb. 9, about 15 people (the theater holds about 100) got up and left early. One of those who left, with his 10-year-old granddaughter, said while as an adult he was not personally offended by the language, he felt that it was not appropriate for his granddaughter and that The Rep had not adequately advertised the appropriateness of the play for young children. He said he did not know the other people who left.
According to Lluberes, “It was a group who came and apparently had expected something more for kids and were offended by the language. We have signs in the lobby that say ‘“The Wolves” contains strong language and adult situations. It is recommended for teens and adults.’ As well as online. Before the group came in multiple people on our staff told them there would be swear words.” The man who spoke to East Village Magazine about it affirmed his son and granddaughter had been warned at the door but that he believed that was not adequate notice by the theatre.
“I think the play is extraordinary and the writing so fresh and alive. It really captures the way teenagers talk – the swear words, the overlapping, the changing subjects and tone turning on a dime,” Lluberes said in response.
“It captures so much what it means to be young – and especially gives voice to the American Teenage Girl in a way audiences have never heard or seen before. The audiences on the other nights have enjoyed the play so much and have been able to go on the emotional ride of the play together.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the exciting work we’re doing at Flint Rep, especially the idea of doing a play like ‘The Wolves’ here,” Lluberes said.
Walsh, who is based in Chicago, also spoke fondly of her time in Flint. “I’m so happy to be here. This place is awesome. I’m a Chicago-based director and this is my second time in Flint. I adore it here. I’ve been shouting ‘Flint” from the rooftops to all my friends. Thank you so much for having me as part of your community this winter. I have felt so welcomed, both in this place and… in the Farmers Market…at the Soggy Bottom Bar… I’m so so thrilled that you are here to experience this play tonight,” she said.
“The Wolves” continues its run through this coming weekend Feb. 15 – 17. Evening performances at are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Friday is College Night which offers complimentary admission to students with a valid college I.D. Sunday’s performance features a pre-show chat, “discussions with experts on production-relevant topics.” Go to https://www.flintrep.org/flint-rep-season/signature-series/the-wolvesor call 810-237-7333 for ticket information.
“The Wolves” is sponsored by Flint’s Charles Stewart Harding Foundation.
EVM Staff Writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.