September 21, 2016

"The Wolves" Champions Female Ambitions

Besides Claire Boothe Luce's catty comedy The Women, Euripides' breast-clawing tragedy The Trojan Women, the feminist cri de coeurs of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enough and Jaclyn Backhaus' recent and slyly named Men on Boats, there are few plays that feature full-bodied roles for an all-female ensemble.

And that's a large part of the reason I'm so crazy about The Wolves, the new non-gender titled play written by the gifted young playwright Sarah DeLappe and directed by the gifted young director Lila Neugebauer for a Playwrights Realm production running at The Duke theater on 42nd Street.

But I've got other reasons for cheering The Wolves too. For starters, the play is about nine members of a girls' soccer team and it's refreshing to see the portrayal of a group of young women bonding over common (and non-romantic) goals: to get to their sport's nationals, to get athletic scholarships and to figure out where they fit in the larger world.

A couple of dramatic offstage events are invoked to help give the narrative some shape but the main action takes place on a playing field, where the girls, primarily high school seniors, go through stretching routines, choreographed with deceptive simplicity by Neugebauer (who actually captained her high school's varsity team) and talk about everything from their periods to their parents to the Pol Pot regime (click here to read about the rehearsal process).

And although there's the usual bickering and casual one-upmanship that's common in any group, there's very little of the bitchiness (although the b-word is used) that so many fictional works seem to believe define female relationships.

Plus, the acting is all-out terrific. The characters are identified only by their jersey numbers but over the course of just 90 minutes, the dialog, the direction and the performances work together to make each a distinctive and recognizable individual.

It can sometimes come off as awkward when actors in their 20s portray younger characters but these actors don't condescend to their roles by pushing too hard. Kudos to the casting director for coming up with such a pitch-perfect ensemble.

There is no main protagonist. Each player, in both senses of the word, moves effortlessly back and forth between holding center court and providing supportive backup for her teammates. I don't think I've seen any of the young actresses playing them before but now I'm eager to see all of them again.

There was one moment toward the end that baffled me slightly but the only thing I don't like about this splendid production is the fact that its extension only lasts until Sept. 29, which limits the number of people who can see it.

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