The Wolves: they shoot, they score, they stupefy

This is a guest review by David Johnston *

The Wolves by Sara DeLappe is currently playing at Pacific Theatre.

The Wolves cluster in a densely-concentrated ball of soccer skills and acting talent. (Photo by Ron Reed)

It begins by throwing the audience to the wolves.

We are thrust unceremoniously into a gaggle of chattering teenage girls in identical soccer jerseys. They’re stretching for a match, but that’s only discernable from context clues, as is everything in Pacific Theatre’s clever production.

They don’t get names — just jersey numbers. And the girls never line up and introduce themselves. This is extreme show-don’t-tell storytelling, full of cross-talk and freewheeling banter on everything from high school dating to the political situation in Cambodia.

It’s disorienting to newcomers. We know this because one of the girls is a newcomer, thus creating the first discernible group dynamic. At the outset, #46 (Paige Louter) becomes a quasi-protagonist as the others literally revolve around her. (This also gives Louter a chance to conduct a clinic in physical comedy with her silent attempts to follow the stretches.)

But gradually, as the pregame practices wear on, #46 — and, by extension, the audience — gets to know the team, and our initial conceptions about the squad members are challenged repeatedly. The Wolves demands that we become hyper-keen detectives: picking up on subtle costume differences, scanning for micro-expressions that are rarely spotlit.

The tribes shift continuously, with one unthinking comment changing the dynamic in a heartbeat. It’s utterly absorbing. Under Jamie King’s direction, the 100 minutes zoom by.

And that’s basically all the show is: a series of playlets each set in the ten to fifteen minutes before weekly games. There are little ongoing storylines, like the girls’ near-collective desire to impress college scouts, but the script remains a nonet of interlocking character studies with stunning choreography and unusual respect for its audience.

Until the end, that is. And here’s where I warn you that discussing the ending, even in the vaguest terms, spoils some of it. If you haven’t seen it, and if you have any desire to see snappy theatre or complex female-driven narratives, then I recommend The Wolves and you should stop reading now.

Last chance. Spoilers ahead.

The final scene is the aftermath of an offstage non-soccer-related tragedy for one of the players. Again, nothing is spelled out, but as it slides into focus, it becomes apparent that this is an order of magnitude more adult than most of the issues these girls have faced.

I’m torn, because on one hand, these final 20 minutes are gripping. The trickle-in arrival, as each player pointedly avoids discussing the tragedy while remaining unable to discuss anything else, is a slow-motion suspense film. As with the rest of the material, playwright Sarah DeLappe explores grief and the accompanying human responses without holding the audience’s hand or resorting to exposition. The play takes the characters’ reactions seriously without betraying them — and this is the script’s best scene.

But structurally, it feels so arbitrary, with the playwright’s fist extremely visible. Such a ham-handed manipulation of audience emotions leaves a sour aftertaste. The Wolves has been a study in subtlety. This final narrative direction is far too blunt.

I’m confident DeLappe’s script could have navigated a better ending that doesn’t reek of shock value; she writes so confidently the rest of the time, that flipping the plot dial to “I dunno, sometimes random life stuff just happens!” feels like a betrayal. Even though, yes, it’s handled well, and the acting remains stunning across the board.

It’s uncomfortable and unsettling. Maybe that’s the point. The Wolves is a lot to unpack. It’s an excellent show. Your opinion may vary on whether it could be better.

THE WOLVES By Sarah DeLappe. Directed by Jamie King. Presented by Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, October 19. Continues until November 10. Tickets.

* David Johnston is a Vancouver-based actor, aerialist, and writer, not in that order. He is a recent graduate of Studio 58 and always appreciates the opportunity to bloviate thoughtfully about theatre and art. David is not above including a shameless plug in his bio for the upcoming season of Duggan Hill, a horror-storytelling podcast he occasionally guests on.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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