Astroturf, protective netting, shin guards and soccer balls: The Wolves takes place in an immense suburban structure designed to allow this team of young aspirants to play indoor soccer in the dead of winter. Each scene depicts the cast of nine teenagers warming up for a weekly match. Their overlapping and dynamic conversations are wide ranging; taking in (inter alia) Cambodian genocide, lost loves, pregnancy, anxiety, depression, opportunity and racial harmony. We see a trend towards social cohesiveness as they test each other’s boundaries; their shared experiences giving them common ground.
The Wolves, by playwright Sarah Delappe, was a critical hit in the USA, receiving the American Playwriting Foundation’s inaugural Relentless Award, as well as placing as a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Yale Drama Series Prize, and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Belvoir’s production is directed by Jessica Arthur, currently STC’s Resident Director, and co-founder of The Anchor theatre company. This production opened at the Old Fitz Hotel in April 2018, and has been revived for its 2019 run at Belvoir.
The show offers something a little bit different: it’s an all female cast with ten characters, and certainly passes the Bechdel Test. That is, it features two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. Arthur notes that this production is also written and directed by women: hopefully we will see more all female productions in the future.
It’s a highly physical show, with the characters generally in a heightened state of readiness for the impending match. The nervous energy generated by the forthcoming contest reverberates throughout, intensifying moments of humour and social disunity.
The plot doesn’t follow a traditional story structure with a central protagonist: I expected Brenna Harding’s character, as team captain, to emerge as having the central conflict, but it never happened. As the team is collaborative, so is the story structure itself. Harding reminded the assembled that they rise and fall together.
The performances are mercurial and poignant. Without that traditional structure providing climactic emotional denouements, we are treated to flashes of intense feeling. We notice how a verbal barb lands, or how each player attempts to obfuscate their vulnerabilities. In this way the emotion we see is perhaps closer to how such incidents are experienced in real life, arguably offering heightened verisimilitude.
The episodic nature lends itself to sudden crises and payoffs. At one point Delappe portrays an unexpected tragic event, which I initially thought may have arisen too abruptly and without foreshadowing, but this is often the way with tragedies; in this way the abruptness contributed to a meditation on loss.
Sarah Meacham was particularly funny as #13 (the characters are identified by the numbers on their jerseys), rising to the unique challenges of the rapid fire script with a gritty and winning realism. Sofia Nolan as #8 delivered many emotionally detailed and rewarding moments. Nikita Waldron was compelling as #46, not overplaying the sympathy-generating journey of the long suffering itinerant student; constantly forced to up-sticks and reintegrate. As ‘the beautiful game’ is played all over the world, soccer offers her the chance to make friends, she cautiously explains to the skeptical team.
Set design (Maya Keys) was really wonderful, transporting us in an exciting way to the indoor soccer microcosm. I highly recommend this explosive, funny and moving production.
Playing at The Upstairs Theatre Belvoir Street until 3 March. Photograph by Brett Boardman.