3.5 stars out of 4
Receiving its Chicago premiere at Gift Theatre (though it was previously workshopped as part of Ignition at Victory Gardens), Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play is not about wolves, though it certainly offers many facts about them, but about human families, both biological and chosen. The Wolf in the title is Jeenu, aka Peter, Jr., a Korean boy embodied by a puppet, who was adopted by a young American couple. When that couple has a biological child, they decide to rehome their adoptive son, who has decided that it is safer to be a wolf than a human. Sadly, he is not wrong. Wolf Play follows the wolf-boy-puppet as he tries to find his pack among humans trying to deal with the messiness of relationships, perceptions about gender and sexuality, and parenting. Wolves need more than they think they need, and humans can’t always give what they need, no matter how much they try.
Led by a bravura performance by Dan Lin as the Wolf, who brings the puppet Jeenu to life and gives voice both to the actual child and his inner monologue, the cast navigates Jung’s minefield of issues with warmth and sincerity. Jung’s characters border on the stereotypical, but in the hands of director Jess McLeod and her cast, they are portrayed with enough sensitivity that they become multidimensional. Jung’s play, and McLeod’s intimate production, do not exactly put the audience in Jeenu’s mind, but they do immerse the viewer in the confusing, slippery world he inhabits, where things are too often not what they appear. For us, the audience, this includes Jeenu himself. We follow Jeenu as he arrives with Peter (Tim Martin) at the home of Ash and Robin, where Robin and her brother Ryan are putting up balloons—blue balloons—to welcome the boy home. Peters like wolves, the Wolf/Boy/Puppet explains; but this Peter has found a new home for his son on Yahoo, and the Wolf is left alone in his new environment. Lin, both as Jeenu’s alter-ego and as the puppet Jeenu, brings a taut physicality and wariness to his interactions with both the audience and the other characters, leavened by hope, longing and sly humor. Among the humans, Jeenu feels most at ease with Ash, a professional boxer with a career-making fight coming up. Isa Arciniegas’ Ash matches Jeenu’s wariness with her own as she reluctantly accepts the child. Arciniegas captures the fear and joy of parenting, which is compounded by the fact that Jeenu comes with unique challenges. As her wife, Robin, who found and adopted the boy online, Jennifer Glasse is appropriately warm and nurturing, good-naturedly chiding her brother for his archaic views of gender roles and Ash for her inattention to the adoption process, but tough as nails when it comes to forging the family she wants. Glasse’s Robin relies on breathing and yoga to keep her equanimity, but when push comes to shove, she proves herself to be the Alpha wolf. Al’Jaleel McGhee brings an amiable bluster to Ryan, Ash’s coach and Robin’s brother, which proves the right approach to this confusing role. Progressive enough to accept his sister’s relationship with another woman and a female protegee in the boxing ring, Ryan nevertheless has some decidedly old-fashioned attitudes towards child-rearing and the needs of boys. As Ash becomes distracted by parenthood, McGhee’s Ryan slowly reveals the misgivings of his character about his sister’s choices as he falls back on the tropes of masculinity. Tim Martin brings an endearing yet ultimately toxic boyishness to the role of Peter, who lacks the backbone to dispute his wife, who decides that Peter, Jr. must go when she has a biological child. Hiding his character’s selfish need for affection behind an exterior of paternal concern, Martin’s Peter demonstrates how his character’s charm appeals to others (including the audience), while allowing him to be destructively irresponsible.
Director Jess McLeod balances the fairy-tale elements of the play and the very human horrors that lurk in the stories that adults tell themselves and their children. Her direction of the human characters shows the artifice of the roles and relationships people maintain as masks slip when tensions emerge upon the arrival of a boy in need of love. Mirroring the storytelling in which the characters engage, the scenery, except for some chairs and children’s building-block toy chest, is almost two-dimensional, with the iconography of boyhood: trucks, piggy banks, video game controllers, and a rocket ship bed, arrayed as a monochromatic frieze in set designer Arnel Sancianco’s gothic set. The story-book set allows for action in multiple locations to share and resonate on the small stage. In practical terms, this allows enough room for training sequences, mealtimes, tense arguments and a fateful boxing match on the small stage of the Gift Theatre. Lighting designer Mike Durst reinforces the dark shadows of Jeenu’s vision, alternating with harsh, unsparing pools of light on the characters’ interactions. Sound designer and composer Eric Backus underscores the tensions between the world views of the play, as well as creating the backdrop for boxing world that Ash inhabits. Costume designer Stephanie Cluggish reinforces the societal roles of the characters. Ash is dressed in the workout gear or boxing shorts of her profession. Robin wears stylish business casual. Ryan wears a technical shirt and sweatpants. Peter is dressed in man-child attire of bright Hawaiian shirt and khaki cargo shorts. Lin’s Wolf is dressed in goth dark grays and black, with torn jeans. Puppet Jeenu’s bright shirt is reminiscent of his formerly adoptive father’s, while his dark jeans resemble those of the actor/Wolf who brings him to life. Puppet Jeenu is designed by Stephanie Diaz, and, though his furrowed brow reflects sadness and fear, he comes to life in his interactions with the other characters, making it easy to forget that he is not, in fact, another human character, even as he is animated and manipulated by others.
Wolf Play is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of parenting with only good intentions as a guide. Though the characters in Hansol Jung’s play mean well, the stories they have learned and believe, and that inform how they care for the eight-year-old boy in their midst, reflect their own desires more than the needs of the boy. The audience does not know Jeenu’s full history, but it is clear that he has already been the victim of good intentions too many times in his short life by the time the play begins. Casting a puppet as a boy who thinks he is a wolf is a brilliant way of showing how adult expectations can mold or destroy a child. The adults in Jung’s play have also been stamped by their experiences, which affects their interactions with each other, and their demands of the child, who, as all children, has no agency in his life—far better, then, to be a wolf. Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play offers no resolution or consolation to the audience or to her characters, but it reminds us that children need to be taught to be the human adults we want them to be. Though some of the adults learn to become better parents as the play progresses, they must still contend with the minefield of expectations that defines childhood, families and parents in America, where packs and families are often what one chooses.
Wolf Play runs through Sunday, August 18, 2019 at the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $40 – $50 and are available at www.thegifttheatre.org or by calling (773) 283-7071. More information available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photo by Claire Demos: (left to right) Jennifer Glasse, Al’Jaleel McGhee, Dan Lin and Isa Arciniegas.
Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.