Review: Fresno State’s compelling ‘Wolves’ turns out to be a fascinating look at humans
Fresno State’s theater department roars with “The Wolves,” a jarring and wonderful new play by Sarah Delappe. The production, directed with a keen naturalistic flair by Kathleen McKinley, is a showcase for the university’s women actors, who portray nine high school girls on a club soccer team called the Wolves. We follow them through a series of pre-game warm-ups and in the process get a series of meaningful glimpses at their outlooks, relationships and ways of interacting with the world.
It continues through Saturday, Oct. 6, in the Woods Theatre.
Some thoughts on the show:
The script is thoroughly steeped in real life. Delappe’s dialogue is brisk, jumbled and partial, which is to say it’s much closer to actual spoken discourse than what we most often hear on the stage. (When, if ever, do people speak in eloquent monologues and easily digestible complete sentences, or wait for another person to finish speaking before jumping in?) To watch “The Wolves” is like following a bouncing beach ball in a crowd: Conversations can be moving along in a predictable fashion when — bounce — they veer off in an unexpected direction. McKinley has described the overlapping conversations in the show as being musical in nature, as if she’s a choral conductor. I could most definitely see her baton at work.
The choreography is stellar. Wait … choreography? This isn’t a musical, though it is fun to imagine the girls breaking into a song about the Khmer Rouge, the unexpected and random conversational topic on which the play opens. (Yes, high school girls talk about more than just boys and lip gloss; some of them pay attention to world events.) The choreography I’m talking about refers to the way that McKinley incorporates movement into the production. Sometimes that movement is quite dancelike, and it can be beautiful. The girls on this soccer team meet on Saturdays in an indoor arena for their games, and before each one, they go through an intricate warm-up routine that includes stretching, jumping and kicking. It’s second-nature to them. They know it so well that they can dive deeply into their concurrent conversations while still being flawlessly in sync.
The cast is a team. Think about it: nine roles, all of them pretty much equal in importance and stage time. (There’s also a tenth and smaller role, but more on that in a moment.) No stars. No background characters with no lines standing next to the potted plant to fill out the stage. We get to know something significant about each of these girls. One of the things I like best about this production is the camaraderie — sometimes prickly, often heartfelt — on display. Normally I’d pick a few acting standouts in a Fresno State production, but I honestly couldn’t narrow it down with this cast. So, I salute all nine soccer players: Madeline Rydberg, Nwachukwu Oputa, Ruby Arreguin, Cassidy LeClair, Sara Marie Adam, Hannah Berry, Alyssa Benitz, Teya Juarez and Summer K. Session.
A certain age. Another high point for me is the way the playwright (and these actors) capture the in-betweenness, so to speak, of a teenage girl as she navigates that stretch between childhood and adulthood. Parents might not be keen on acknowledging that their teen daughters talk about adult things, but they do, of course. In “The Wolves,” the warming-up players can be jabbering on about such topics as abortion and Plan B, and then in an instant be giddily distracted by a bag of orange slices. I loved the feeling that I, as an audience member, was able to “eavesdrop” on this sometimes tumultuous time in life.
The lighting (by Liz Crifasi) and sound (by Kimmy Kaur) are strong. The roar of the crowd helps set the tone for each scene, and a pounding beat and blackout offer punctuation at the end. (One of the few wobbles at the opening night performance was that some of the blackouts seemed a little late, robbing those moments of their intended abruptness.) The lighting often takes on that frigid, institutional quality of indoor stadium lighting, and I particularly like a moment in which a soccer goal is represented. Jeff Hunter’s set, dominated by AstroTurf, seems deceptively simple, but the perspective (with a stretch of field leading off to the distance visible behind a transparent scrim) suggests a cavernous feeling of depth.
The ending is a mild disappointment. For me, without giving anything away, it’s the weakest part of the script. Part of me wishes the playwright could have stuck with the cocoon of a teen world that she created throughout. And the Fresno State production falls a little flat in how it achieves that ending.
A fierce, funny and thoughtful experience. Someone once told me that the way to really grasp teenagers as fully formed human beings is to scrunch down in your seat as a chaperone on a long-distance marching-band bus trip and just listen to the conversations float around you. That’s the feeling I got from “The Wolves.” These characters growl with authenticity. It’s a kick to experience.