'The Wolves' At TheaterWorks Fascinating, Engrossing

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that TheaterWorks has extend "The Wolves" run to Nov. 12. 

 "The Wolves," having its Connecticut premiere at TheaterWorks through Nov. 12, is a different sort of play. This is not just for the obvious reason that most of it consists of nine female teenagers talking about their lives.

As any high school theater program can tell you, there just aren't enough ensemble plays for women, and not enough plays period that treat young women like fully formed human beings and not merely the object of desire, or spite, from other (usually male) characters.

In "The Wolves," nobody's the ingenue. The characters may be onstage because they're a team, but these are independent and varied young women who don't speak in some unified voice. Some curse, blurt out secrets, humiliate. Others are so shy or troubled they barely speak at all. Whoever leaves the playing field is gossiped about, mostly for whatever makes them different from the rest. ("Truth to power? She's pretty stinky.")

Relationships form, games are played, and life-changing events occur. But "The Wolves" doesn't really have a plot. What it has is non-stop realistic banter, uttered by a rather large group of irrepressible high-schoolers (and one homeschooler). They talk over each other. They collapse in uncontrollable laughter. They discuss stuff they learned in Social Studies class, like the Cambodian genocide. The topics change quickly. One moment they're talking about a tragedy, the next a new hairstyle, but the glory of Sarah DeLappe's dense interwoven script is that these digressions about boyfriends don't make the girls seem ditzy or easily distracted.

It makes them seem worldly. These are people on the verge of major changes in their lives. They are sifting through a lot of information, about themselves and each other and the world around them.

This constant stream of casual, occasionally hysterical, conversation begins as soon as the play does, and never fully lets up. No other element, including plot, is as important as that highly charged verbal atmosphere.

That's what makes "The Wolves" special. It's such a full-blown exercise in verisimilitude that, in a theater context where you might reasonably expect more story development or exposition, it comes off as abstract and experimental.

The same could be said for the set. It's a realistic representation of an indoor soccer field, with artificial grass. That artificiality makes a different statement in a theater. It seems consciously out of place—too green, too bright, too unreal.

Realistic reactions and real troubles of real-seeming young people, largely unstructured, on a garishly green stage. There's a magic to that, a genuine suspense. You lean in closer, wanting to distinguish among all the interactions happening on stage at any given time. When a major event occurs late in the play, we don't know what exactly it is at first because the teammates all know and don't need to state it to each other. In real life, people don't actually spell things out all the time, or talk in complete sentences, or hear everything everybody else in the room is saying. Its lack of conventional theatrical storytelling tricks makes "The Wolves" that much more involving, and fascinating.

TheaterWorks Artistic Associate Eric Ort is adept at moving the action around the stage. The teammates kick and toss soccer balls, limber up and keep in motion throughout most of their conversations. Each actor distinguishes herself, but I was most impressed with Caitlin Zoz as #46. (Some characters are identified by name, but most are addressed only by their numbers). Zoz looks and acts credibly teenaged, using naivete and smiliness as tools to ward off the more guarded, tough, older-looking girls. Other stand-outs are Dea Julien as #13, who can turn any comment into a joke that cracks herself up; Carolyn Cutillo as the petite, troubled #2; and Hartt School student Karla Gallegos as a goalie with a lot of pent-up emotions.

Each player is presented as an individual whose personal problems could come to a head at any moment. That's the motivating force of "The Wolves"—wondering which of these complicated characters could ultimately crack and alter this fragile suburban middle-American universe.

The setting and the deliberate randomness of this play are so engrossing that the show's downbeat and somewhat abrupt ending doesn't matter. "The Wolves" isn't about winning or losing. It's how you play the game.

THE WOLVES runs though Nov. 12 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $45 to $70. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.

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