The filth, danger and enchantment of the South comes alive in Adam Rapp’s Wolf in the River and it all takes place around a fresh mound of earth with intoxicating purple flowers. The Man (Jack Ellis) is a shapechanger and he stands barefoot in the dirt, like he is on a soapbox, and counts each audience member one at a time. He is shirtless and holds his torso firmly as he moves around the room demonstrating his dominance. The shapechanger can supernaturally change from a man, to a wolf, and to a nasty, old woman named Dumptruck Lorna. The Wolf smells a pair of used panties from a canvas sack and examines a muddy sundress, cutoff jean shorts, sneakers and a cell phone. Ghoulish men and women known as the Lost Choir creep around the space and hide in the shadows. Suddenly, a distraught, young woman, Tana Weed (Kate Thulin), runs onto the stage naked, grabs the items and is attacked by the Wolf and Lost Choir.
The production explores Tana’s relationship with her apparent first love, Debo (Maki Borden)—a jovial young man from Benton, Illinois. Lighting designer Masha Tsimring uses the warm light from a worn fridge skillfully to create intimacy as Tana and Debo talk to each other over the phone. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado constructs a psychotic background with black stick figures drawn across plywood walls and a thick rope looming over the stage. On a back wall hangs a picture of Jesus Christ with a green, plastic Christmas garland and red bow.
Tana also experiences a contrasting world of chaos and violence that is ran by Monty Mae Maloney (Xanthe Paige). Monty is a blood collector and uses a cane with an alligator head on top of it even though she walks perfectly well. She is also the girlfriend of Tana’s older brother, Dothan (William Apps). Dothan is a dishonorably discharged veteran who spends his time silently tinkering with electronic gadgets. Monty’s gang consists of Aikin (Karen Eilbacher) and Ansel Pinwood (Mike Swift), who goes by Pin. Aikin appears to be a masculine lesbian and eats the purple flowers to get high. Pin runs onto the stage half-naked with a printed copy of Miley Cyrus’ face taped to a blow-up doll. He has sex with the doll over the mound of dirt. Monty ensures that her crew have their intravenous medical ports working properly so that she can draw blood from them.
Theatergoers experience Tana’s worlds as though they are sitting right next to her, and this intimacy is the real value of this production. When Monty slams Tana’s head into the fridge, audience members might even get fake blood splattered on their clothes. The fresh soil from the center mound of earth and burning incense also brings a sense of smell to these worlds. Tana’s life is exposed, criticized and objectified. Nothing, including Tana’s virginity, is not left unjudged. Under Rapp’s direction, The Flea Theater’s resident volunteer acting company, The Bats, have these worlds come alive in raw form.
Rapp and the cast make bold choices and commit to them, but the challenge is having these choices payoff with theatergoers. The vulgarity in some of the scenes can create distance for theatergoers who are trying to relate to the characters and understand the storyline. It is awkward watching the Wolf engage with audience members when the audience is still just trying to figure out what is going on. The overall aim and vision can be unclear and other markets may not respond to this material.
At the same time there is so much depth to these characters that each of them could have their own play written about them. The issues are rooted more so in the characters and not the plot. Each character’s stand is like figments of Tana’s imagination. The violence, nudity and sexual situations do effectively show the characters’ vulnerability, desperation and fears–even when theatergoers have already seen enough.
Wolf in the River is recommended for theatergoers who want to be challenged and still have the patience to see what this production has to offer at the end. It is not recommended for those seeking a nicely woven and easy-to-swallow story. Thulin’s performance as Tana is solid and her ability to stay in character and be innocent while going through hell is very impressive. Tana’s hunched shoulders and bloody nose suggests that she is timid and defeated, but her determination to leave her hometown and run away with Debo stays present in her eyes. She is not a victim, but a survivor who hides her reality from Debo. The audience is the river and the Wolf says, “You go for miles and your current’s so strong this time a year that the people in this town string ropes across to help folks get to the other side.”
Wolf in the River runs until June 6 at The Flea Theater (41 White St. between Church Street and Broadway) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Monday and Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m. and select matinee performances are Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$100. To purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit TheFlea.org.