Maki Borden

Crossing Into Madness

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

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Disasters Change People

Audience participation in Take Care consists of three levels—featured participants, group participants and voyeurs. Featured participants give solo performances, group participants perform with three or more people and voyeurs pretty much just watch. Participants are given instructions with a starting time, starting location, action, ending time and what to do when done. There are six to eight prompts that are to be performed within 50 minutes and the prompts usually involve making sounds, reciting lines and/or moving body parts. On the walls are television screens and digital clocks that count down the time and act as timers. During the performance, anyone—even the voyeurs—can go up to the microphone and pause the performance by saying “hold.” The clock stops and the person holding up the show can share their critique, comments, suggestions or requests about the production and the actors will respond. There is only one “hold” available for the whole performance.

All theatergoers receive personalized customer service from the moment they drop off their coats at the coat check to being escorted downstairs to their seats. Each point of contact provides theatergoers the opportunity to engage with the production before the performances even start. The actors offer the audience members mints and ask, “What is your desired level of participation?” No matter what level of participation a person chooses, the production provides a space for theatergoers to explore how they respond to emergencies and dangerous environments while in group situations.

The Flea Theater’s artistic director, Niegel Smith, partnered with his long-time collaborator, Todd Shalom, to create Take Care. Smith also directs The Flea Theater’s resident volunteer acting company, The Bats, in this production. At times, the actors feel more like supportive audience members or coaches guiding the participants through their scenes. Some of the most memorable, authentic and telling moments happen when the theatergoers share their personal stories at the microphone. For example, one woman shared about being discriminated against at the DoubleTree Hotel in Jersey City during Hurricane Sandy because she was black. Another woman, who had left Singapore because of religious persecution, was confronted with her past when a Singapore news channel wanted to interview her during Hurricane Sandy because she was Singaporean. A bartender talked about spending his time at work in Manhattan donating candles to people during Hurricane Sandy. Later, participants ask their neighbors if they can put their head in their lap or on their shoulder and then everyone watches a video of people kissing each other.

The value of the production is in the range of human emotions that are evoked and experienced by the theatergoers. Climate change, natural disasters, environmentalism, racism and many other subjects are covered throughout the show, but the topics go deeper than just being thought-provoking. Audience members feel alone and isolated within the group and then loving and comforting toward each other. The events have theatergoers distinguish their own resistance to helping fellow survivors. Take Care creates a dual experience where theatergoers feel like “we’re all in this together,” while at the same time, audience members go through their own personal journeys.

The material is relevant to the modern world and reads like it was more likely inspired by Hurricane Katrina than Hurricane Sandy. The production is effective enough as a fluent expression and does not get bogged down with the subject matter. Instead, the theatergoing experiences are personalized. If the overall aim and vision were to see if people really do take care of each other, then playwright and director Smith has achieved this. The play leaves theatergoers in a different place than where they started off.

The challenge with this production is its ability to travel outside of New York City and for theatergoers in other markets to relate. A greater balance between the positive and negative events that take place would make the uplifting scenes occur more natural and less out of place. More live singing and dancing could maximize the performances.

Take Care is recommended for theatergoers who do not mind getting a little wet and who are seeking something different. It is a participatory performance with a cast that really does care about its audience members. It is not recommended for those seeking a traditional theatergoing experience that involves passively observing. The production will likely trigger past events and transform how people relate to each other during a major disaster. It is also a production that theatergoers could experience every night of the week and never experience the same show twice since the participants are always different. Each participant alters the mood of the performance with his or her sharing. The next natural disaster that happens will likely share some of the same emotional elements that are exposed in Take Care.

Take Care runs until Jan. 25 at The Flea Theater (41 White St. between Church St. and Broadway) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Monday at 7 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday at 9 p.m. with no matinee performances. Tickets range from $15-$35. To purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit

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