Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Bath House
Wolf Play opens with Robin (Kira Player) blowing up blue balloons as she anxiously awaits the arrival of her soon-to-be son. Robin's wife Ash (Bruce Baldini) and her brother Ryan (Matteo Scammell) are skeptical of the do-it-yourself, online adoption that is about to add one new member to their family. It turns out their skepticism is not completely unfounded. At six years old, Jeenu is three years older than his online picture and description. And at the drop-off, Jeenu's adoptive father Peter (Keith Conallen) reveals some behavioral issues that were not previously disclosed. Peter has his own concerns with the unusual transaction, and he makes no effort to hide how upset he is to discover that his son is about to be adopted by two women.
Jeenu is portrayed by a life-size puppet (design by Sebastienne Mundheim) operated and voiced by Makoto Hirano. Hirano also plays Jeenu's alter-ego Wolf and narrates some of the action, often speaking to the audience directly. It is a brilliant and heartbreaking artistic device. The paper-mache marionette effectively conveys Jeenu's sense of disconnection and also illustrates how the adults in his life are more focused on the idea of him rather than the actual human in front of them. Hirano's poignant portrayal of Wolf is an unforgettable blend of movement and voice.
Baldini's transition from career-focused skeptic to loving parent is deeply compelling. Their deft and understated performance works particularly well in the scenes they share with Hirano, which are some of my favorite moments in the production. Baldini has good chemistry with Player, too. Player is sympathetic as the well-intentioned but deeply misguided Robin. Scammell is deliciously detestable as Ryan.
Colin McIlvaine's dynamic scenic design is fantastic. Furniture covered in a child's crayon drawings are shifted around the stage to create different locations. These spaces frequently blend and overlap, but it is always completely clear where the action is taking place. Director Deborah Block, who is also Theatre Exile's producing artistic director, uses the set to create a wonderfully unstable, almost dreamlike atmosphere. Ariel (Liudi) Wang's of-the-moment costume designs are impeccable, giving the play a solid sense of time and place that contrasts beautifully with the dream-like quality of the set.
Theatre Exile's excellent production Wolf Play will stay in your head and heart long after the house lights come up. I know it's still in mine.
Wolf Play runs through November 20, 2022, at Theater Exile 1340 S. 13th Street Philadelphia PA. Prices range from $10-40. Masks required. For tickets and information, please visit www.theatreexile.org or call 215-218-4022.