MCC’s Wolf Play Rings Forth the Battle, Playfully and Emotionally

Mitchell Winter in Wolf Play at MCC Theatre. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: MCC’s Wolf Play

By Ross

What if I said I am not what you think you see?” This is the opening line that swings strong, setting up the battle, and signaling the start. It’s a captivating first few minutes, ringing in a question match that enticingly registers. Playfully, it sets the stance for Hansol Jung’s wonderfully fun dark Wolf Play, as directed with off-balanced stability by Dustin Wills (Foundry Theatre’s O, Earth), sending it off to fly strong with a wild and wonderful exuberance at its core. Playing out engagingly at the MCC Theatre after a critically acclaimed sold-out run at Soho Rep, the wolf at the center of this game, played impressively by Mitchell Winter (Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More), barges into the ring from a refrigerator door – and as one of my friends stated, quite excitedly, “any play that uses a refrigerator as a door, I just need to see.” Unpacking the story with an indirect, but fascinating quiz to us all, the questions ring out expanding the space to include us all. Is it “too much?“, “trying too hard?“, I don’t so, not in the least. What it does do, with Winter’s captivating assistance, is make up all sit up, lean in, and take notice. Because we are all now in on the action, not idle passive audience members.We are involved.

Mitchell Winter and Nicole Villamil in Wolf Play at MCC Theatre. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Using paper mache puppetry and a manic makeshift playground energy, Wolf Play delivers forth something special, akin to a scary place for an abandoned young wolf pup to be thrust into, without any intention to cause us fear. On a set that is a playground of sorts made for unpacking, designed with an inventive spirit by You-Shin Chen (AFO’s Monsoon Season), with lighting by Barbara Samuels (PR’s The Rape of…) and sound by Kate Marvin (PH’ Wives), a young Korean child, embodied by a magnificently handled puppet, designed by Amanda Villalobos (MCC’s Space Dogs), but voiced by Winter, is off-the-record adopted. He is handed off, like a Facebook Marketplace purchase, from one overwhelmed family, represented by the complicated guilt-ridden father, Peter, played wisely and with deliberation by Christopher Bannow (Broadway’s Oklahoma!), to another, centered on one half of a lesbian couple, Robin, portrayed impressively by Nicole Villamil (LCT3’s Queens). Robin frets and is, most naturally, utterly anxious about what she has done, how it will affect, and how it will all play out. She knows that this is not how it is usually done; adoption, but it is clear she wants this child, and equally wants to be a good mother as we watch her overinflate balloons and bicker endlessly with her hyped-up brother, Ryan, played with complicated fire by a very good Brian Quijada (Public’s Oedipus El Rey).

This unofficial adoption all sounds terrifically and technically horrific, and we see the discomfort, living and breathing most specifically in the somewhat pathetic frame of Peter, but more importantly, we register the fear in the young puppet wolf-boy, whose name is not Peter Jr., but Jeenu. Everyone seems to be doing what they believe is the best thing, even if it is selfish, and doesn’t look or feel that way. Yet, the ‘re-housing’ of this young boy, who is older than what Robin was told, is not greeted with joy across the board. He, in that fragile puppet form, voiced internally and loudly by an impressive Winter, shakes and hides like the wolf he says he is, barely saying a word, attacking when cornered, and retreating when overwhelmed. And those actions are only heightened when Robin’s “wife”, Ash, comes through the door, looking as if they are stepping into the ring for a match with an impossible opponent. Magnificently embodied by the deep Esco Jouléy (Netflix’s “Inventing Anna”), Ash, who identifies as nonbinary, is not what Peter expected, and with that tense encounter, Round One is over, but the fight is still on.

Esco Jouléy in Wolf Play at MCC Theatre. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

There is a reality that is being unleashed here, as we see from the poster boards in the lobby about secondhand adoptions, giving the playwright plenty to unpack over so much more than what is roped out. Hansol Jung (Wild Goose Dreams) finds an engaging and kind attachment to the piece through the softening of two fighters. The questions that were raised at the beginning, return, with a vengeance, in a way, probing the situation with an intent curiosity that pulls us into the ring. “Just how far will a wolf will go to defend its pack“, becomes the question that floats above the roped-out square, as Wolf Play delivers round after round of complicated aggression and defensive fantasies, balanced with breaks for connection and emotional engagement. It dances around, reacting quickly to attacks, pivoting away from an opponent’s punch, or extending during a one-two combo. Like any good fighter would.

Jeenu isn’t an easy child. He doesn’t connect with Robin, and has quite the aggressive tendencies, like a young wolf forever on guard. The attachment Jeenu is pulled towards is the physically confident Ash, who is focused on training for a professional boxing match. Their eye-to-eye engagement works, giving Jeenu connection and a sense of community and understanding, much to the complicated displeasure of Robin. It’s a set-up worth noting, as we feel the warmth in Ash and Jeenu’s quiet breakfast consuming it and them, but we also feel a battle being rounded up, in the parallel structuring with Peter’s fraught relationship with his wife, and we can’t help but feel the tension rise as the ropes lower in.

The cast of Wolf Play at MCC Theatre. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Pulled in by the wolf’s voice from the very beginning, costumed most tenderly by Enver Chakartash (MCC’s Which Way to the Stage), Winter’s agenda works, building and drawing us into the drama through a lightening of the arena. While also emotionally landing some pretty solid punches to our gut. It’s charming until it becomes tense, and fun until it becomes dark and disturbingly sad. I’m not quite sure the ending works as a whole, bobbing itself into a corner before a judge, but the overall slice of semi-reality in a make-believe playground with a backdrop of homey and hardware store goods finds its way clearly into our adrenaline system, pumping the tension and sad discomfort throughout our bodies.

The truth,” as Winter says from the top, “is a wobbly thing,” as white puff balls pour out over makeshift Kashi. Nothing is quite simple and straightforward in Jung’s Wolf Play, even with the play of the wolf. The questions often are not easy to answer, the battle not easy to win, and the fighter, if distracting, can fall, but the overall engagement feels fresh and captivating. The play does lose its footing about three-quarters of the way through, but don’t keep that from drawing you to the ring. Nothing is what we think it is or will be, and the outcome is never quite clear, especially when a fridge is a doorway into something as wildly engaging as this dynamic new Wolf Play.

Wolf Play, playing at MCC Theatre, extending now through April 2nd. Tickets and info here.


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