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AstroTurf & American exceptionalism: 'The Wolves' staged at ART

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Theatre review

AstroTurf & American exceptionalism: 'The Wolves' staged at ART

Playwright DeLappe has something genuinely interesting to say, in a distinctive and revelatory way

  • Paige Mills (#14), Lauren Vialva (#11), Sophia Goodin (#2), Vuane Suitt (#00), Eavan Clare Brunswick (#8), Elana Rose Richardson (#13).
    Tim Fuller Paige Mills (#14), Lauren Vialva (#11), Sophia Goodin (#2), Vuane Suitt (#00), Eavan Clare Brunswick (#8), Elana Rose Richardson (#13).
  • Paige Mills (#14), Reagan Kennedy (#7), Maggie McNeil (#46).
    Tim FullerPaige Mills (#14), Reagan Kennedy (#7), Maggie McNeil (#46).
  • Reagan Kennedy (#7), Paige Mills (#14).
    Tim FullerReagan Kennedy (#7), Paige Mills (#14).

Sarah DeLappe's "The Wolves," an entertaining and provocative Pulitzer-Prize-finalist play perfectly suited to a university-theater production, has just opened a two-week run at Arizona Repertory Theatre's Tornabene performance venue.

Set on "an indoor soccer field somewhere in suburban America" over the course of six consecutive Saturdays, "The Wolves" is about what goes on while 16- and 17-year-old girls warm up before their team's games.

Yet, as the author insists in the preface to the published version of her play (2018; "The Wolves" premiered Off-Broadway in 2016, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017), "the play is not really about soccer," but about "AstroTurf and American exceptionalism," women's bodies and team sports, collective identity and self-discovery, and, ultimately, life and death on the "planet of teenage girls."

Team sports and women's bodies

Traditionally, if girls wanted to train their bodies to perform collectively and publicly, they took dance classes — a rigorous physical discipline generally designed to (among other things) conceal muscularity and emphasize the beauty of line, form and movement.

In the last 50 years or so, young women have increasingly had opportunities to train their bodies in a very different way — through team sports, especially volleyball, basketball, softball, and soccer, all of which have developed large, highly visible, and rather well-funded national and international organizations and competitions (professional leagues, World Cups, the Olympics).

Unlike golf, tennis, swimming, track and field, and gymnastics — which are essentially individual competitions with only an occasional and attenuated collective dimension (doubles matches, relay races, aggregated scoring) — team sports are athletic competitions in which individual human bodies are necessarily subsumed into the culture, strategy, and cooperative physicality of the group. This may all seem quite obvious to today's teenage girl, but it was an experience virtually denied to their grandmothers and newly, haphazardly, and somewhat controversially available to their mothers.

Indeed, as the #Metoo movement forcefully reminds us, mid-20th-century second-wave and more recent third-wave feminist struggles to reconceive female agency and reorient the specularity of the female body in patriarchal culture still crucially inform the public discourse of gender identity and gender relations, most familiarly, of course, under the sign of the "strong woman."

Muscular, traumatic discourses

This is where, in a compositional sense at least, DeLappe's "The Wolves" begins.

In the first paragraph of her Preface DeLappe wants us to know right away "just what sort of play this play was from the start. Physical. Concerned with the body, with women's bodies, not as eye candy or symbolic vessels but as muscular, dexterous, capable, contradictory, and fallible individuals."

Moreover, she adds a few paragraphs later, "I thought of the play as a war movie": "a troop preparing for battle," "a captain, a rebel, an innocent, a recent recruit, a common enemy," "an escalation of blood and viscera both in the content of their speech and the actual sustained injuries and trauma."

"The Wolves" then is a drama configured from the outset into a particular conjunction of muscular, traumatic discourses about physicality, competition, war, and the bodies of developing young women, a disturbingly atavistic concurrence captured in its title, which is also the name of the indoor soccer team through which this howling pack of teenage girls are (the prefatory Delappe again) "allowed to define themselves amongst themselves."

Physical theater

The play's director, Claire Marie Mannle, an instructor in the UA's School of Theatre, Film, and Television, is a rising young theater talent who directed a terrific, somatically sophisticated production of Sarah Ruhl's challenging "Eurydice" for Scoundrel and Scamp Theatre in 2018, and whose MFA from the well-regarded Dell'Arte School of Physical Theater is on full display here.

Each of the six scenes (with one exception) is essentially, as the stage directions note, "a warm-up for a game," "a series of exactly timed stretches and exercises," executed "in perfect unison and with military precision," during which the girls (identified in the script almost exclusively by uniform number only) interact through a constantly shifting barrage of overlapping dialogue.

Mannle's nine-"player" (in two senses of the word) ensemble is almost always right on point, in step and in rhythm, squatting, kicking, jumping, running, teasing, swearing, gossiping, arguing, laughing, crying.

Of course, no one in the cast is as athletically skilled as experienced 16- and 17-year-old travel soccer players would be, but they all seem to be in good enough shape to handle the rigor of almost constant physical exertion and they do the calisthenics with a nicely regulated pace and an aggressively regimented spirit.

The Wolves and the Brodie set

Indeed, the "military precision" of the warm-up and the militaristic bravado of their familiar (before the mid-twentieth century, almost exclusively masculinist) sports rhetoric ("let's freaking kill 'em!") is specifically associated at one point with a political rhetoric and ideology ("You guys are like a group of fascists") some of the girls seem to be studying in school.

This is a more or less overt allusion to the language and situation of Muriel Spark's classic mid-twentieth-century novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1961), which was adapted into a stage play (1966, Vanessa Redgrave creating the title role) and then a movie (1969, Maggie Smith's breakthrough to international stardom), in which a group of Scottish schoolgirls is in thrall to their charismatic teacher, who rails against "team spirit" but, explicitly modeling her teaching methods on the militaristic regimentation of Mussolini's fascist regime, turns the impressionable young girls into her "set."

Team spirit and genocide

As Spark's narrative suggests, and DeLappe's play explores, "team spirit" is an ideologically loaded conceptual practice, crucial to the construction of the collective and to the inculcation of various notions of citizenship, loyalty, efficiency, and success, but subversive of individual agency and expression and ultimately perhaps of human freedom.

This conundrum is most consistently and effectively articulated in "The Wolves" through the trope of (mostly physical, but occasionally symbolic) violence: in the ferocity with which the girls train and play, in the bone-crushing and ligament-tearing injuries they suffer, in the rising crescendo of their chant ("We are the Wolves!") which ends in a primal howl, in the profane and vicious language with which they banter and argue, and, most interestingly, in their occasional and unsettling references to genocide.

The very first scene, "Week One—The Cambodian," begins with an elliptical discussion about, of all things, Pol Pot:


but it's like

he's old


he murdered 1000s of people


literally 100s of 1000s

Later discussions of the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge (which the girls have trouble pronouncing and thus repeat, in various iterations, an uncomfortable number of times) are shared with the new girl, #46, whom they think is Mexican but is, in fact, an Armenian-American (thus invoking the Turkish Great-War-era ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people which led to the coining of the term "genocide") who has briefly lived (and played soccer) in Cambodia and for whom a later scene, "Week Four—The Cambodian II," is named.

Even later they will refer, more or less in passing, to the Nazi Holocaust, to Mexican kids in cages at the American border, to Vietnam ("like something's really hard it's like Vietnam"), and to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

The point here, I think, is that (to quote DeLappe's preface again) the sanctioned physical violence of organized team sports not only attracts and induces "muscular, dexterous, [and] capable" young women but also "contradictory [and] fallible" individuals who are subject to if not (directly or indirectly) contributing to the massive technological violence of modern and post-modern warfare and state terrorism.

Haunted by death

For death haunts this play, not only in the ritual apocalyptic hyperbole of sports rhetoric and in the references to genocide and other crimes against humanity but also in the senseless, accidental death of one of the girls, #14, "#7's insecure sidekick," sideswiped by a car while out jogging and listening to headphones.

The death occurs off-stage, after scene 4, which ends with a vicious argument about friendship, heteronormative sex, and adolescent love (the only extended example of this kind of traditional topic in the play) between #14 ("you ABANDONED me / to go FUCK your STUPID FUCKING BOYFRIEND)" and #7 ("what I do with my body is my own fucking business / . . . I FUCKING LOVE HIM OK?"), and before scene 5, "Time Out," a wordless piece of physical theater in which #00, the goalie, alone on the dimly lit stage, mourns her teammate by crying, tearing off her shirt, and screaming. The last scene, "Week Six—We Are The Wolves," populated gradually by the scattered and belated gathering of the grieving players for the next game, is dominated by the singing (to the tune of "Schoolhouse Rock") of the Preamble to the Constitution, by their captain, #25's, new de-gendering buzz haircut, which they all just have to touch, and by the arrival of Soccer Mom (the manically grieving parent of #14, who, in death, at last gains a name: Alex).

In a long rambling monologue, a traditional theatrical device unlike any other speech act in the play, Soccer Mom fixates on her daughter's and the other girls' use of "like" and other Valley-girl dialectical habits ("the going up? at the end? of the sentence?"), then falls into those habits herself ("how cool is that? / right? / so cool / Frank texted me and I was like / "I am In"), exhorts them to play "smart soccer," and, her speech breaking down into nearly incoherent fragments, finally "hurries off."

Profane and poetic language

Haunted by death, individually or collectively, the Wolves and their loved ones struggle to find the language to express or explain what it means to be alive at this moment and in this place, to be American (or any other national identity), to have long hair or a buzzcut, to be the same or to be different, to be "like" or to be liked, to be muscular and capable, contradictory and fallible, to play "smart soccer," to inhabit (the prefatory DeLappe yet again) "a planet of teenage girls."

As you can perhaps tell from the lines I've quoted, the language of this play is, simultaneously and disturbingly, profane and poetic, arranged like verse on the page, mixing high and low registers, with overlapping dialogue and elliptical, fragmented speech acts in the various and diverse postmodern styles of (among others) Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Sarah Ruhl, and Lucas Hnath.

This is imposing company to be sure, but I think we may be witnessing here the emergence of an important dramatist, a writer who has something genuinely interesting to say and who says it in a distinctive and revelatory way.

As I've already indicated, Mannle does a nice job conveying the theatrical physicality of "The Wolves" — and she is alert as well to the challenge of presenting the play's language. The overlapping dialogue is confusing at first, but you get used to it and learn to distinguish just enough of the various conversations to follow the dynamic of a scene and then to piece together the through-lines of the different and differing relationships between and among among the players, although the fact that the cast members' voices tend to be in pretty much the same vocal range makes doing so a little more difficult than perhaps it should be.

The players

The acting is solid: these young college women still remember what it was like to live on the planet of teenage girls and they're comfortable getting into the various tonal registers the script demands, although sometimes they're not quite as precise and committed as they need to be in order to jump into the swirl of competing conversations and make themselves heard and understood.

The cast really deserves to be evaluated as an ensemble — acting, after all, as this play makes clear, is also teamwork — but certain moments and individual choices do stand out. Reagan Kennedy and Paige Mills handle #7 and #14's vexed and argumentative relationship rather well; Vaune Suitt does a nice job with the goalie's mourning in "Time Out"—she shows us why 00 is an appropriate number for her character; Lotus Rogers (#25) looks the part of the captain and usually manages to be convincingly commanding; Sophia Goodin (#2) was poignantly anorexic; Maggie McNeil (#46) gives the Armenian-Cambodian role a little bit of awkward mystery; Elana Rose Richardson (#13), Eavan Claire Brunswick (#8), and Laureen Vialva (#11) are solid throughout; Callie Hutchison is a convincingly wounded and bewildered Soccer Mom.

Design elements

There aren't a lot of elaborate design elements in the production, but what is there is professionally and appositely done. Ally Frieders' set design, a diamond-shaped patch of artificial grass bounded in the back by floor-to-ceiling netting, is resolutely functional, as is Sierra Adamo's costume design (uniforms, sweats, soccer shoes), and Mack Woods' lighting design (mostly subtle combinations of greens and browns).

Hunter Sweeter's sound design is somewhat more complicated and provocative: rock and electronic music between or at the top of scenes, buzzers and whistles ending beats within scenes — effects that are often jagged, rough, and unsettling, especially the loud buzzer prefiguring #14's death, enhanced by jagged gobo lines thrown across the netting.

Perfectly suited

"The Wolves" is perfectly suited to a university theatre. The roles are almost all age appropriate; the subject matter arises from the lives and the culture of the cast members and their student peers; the issues are timely and significant; the production presents some interesting casting, acting, and directing challenges; the play's use of language is enthralling and exciting in a somewhat new and interesting way; the play's successful presentation reminds us why live theater matters and how, apposite to this pedagogical environment, it continues to teach us about ourselves and the world we live in.

Disclosures: I recently appeared in a play directed by Claire Marie Mannle, I am a UA professor emeritus of English, and I appeared many years ago in an ART theater production.

What, where & when

  • Sarah DeLappe's "The Wolves," directed by Claire Marie Mannle
  • Arizona Repertory Theatre
  • Torabene Theatre, University of Arizona, 1025 N. Olive Rd.
  • Matinees, 1:30 p.m.; Evenings, 7:30 p.m., through February 23

Read more about

arizona repertory theatre, metoo, ua

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