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Before I set foot in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre to see the Chicago premier of Sarah DeLappe’s acclaimed play The Wolves, I tried not to read or hear or learn too much about it. I knew it had been a finalist for a Pulitzer, and won other awards. I knew it was about a girls’ high school soccer team. And that was about it.

The first tidbit informed my own expectations – this ought to be good, I figured. And the second informed who I’d bring along – my own 14-year-old soccer-playing daughter. I was excited that the subject matter might excite her, sure, but was more intent on using her as a litmus test for not just the play’s quality, but its authenticity. And boy, did we both find that it delivered on both counts.

While the play’s 20-something playwright and cast might seem like whippersnappers to an old dude like me, their ilk are positively elderly to a teen. After the play, my daughter admitted she’d been worried that the presentation would be the usual – what old people think young life is like these days. But The Wolves portrayed young life – the young life of today, of yesterday, of time eternal – in a way both dad and daughter found realistic. That is, the play portrayed life realistically.

Sarah DeLappe’s script sets up this portrayal like a champ. After the play, I read that DeLappe was influenced by old war movies – the kind where a gang of guys gain personal revelations in the face of greater situations – and I can see that. I also sensed the influence of 12 Angry Men or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – art that finds greater truths by plopping a disparate troupe of characters into a script. But instead of machine guns and military rations, instead of a jury room or a bank heist, the troupe on the Goodman’s stage was armed with shin guards and phones and backpacks and headbands. But the idea was the same – flesh out a story by fleshing out the people telling it. DeLappe tells her story through her girls’ banter as they stretch and warmup before a series of soccer games. Her gift for said banter is something else – making it sound like how not just girls talk, but how people talk, as the characters flit from discussions of world events to feminine products, from hopes and dreams for the future to the sex and sexuality that seems so pressing in their present. Talk goes from Pol Pot to periods, from weirdoes who live in “yogurts” to punk rock chicks who lick coffeehouse microphones. The stuff real people talk about. And how real people talk about that stuff.

And, more than any play I can remember, director Vanessa Stalling’s production of a team shows it takes a team to pull it off. First off, the cast is great. Those grown-up ladies onstage could totally, like, pass as a gaggle of teen girls. And that’s not to belittle them or the material they’re working with. Most likely because I’m a nerd, myself, I connected with Sarah Price’s neurotic know-it-all, #11 (yes, the characters are only identified by jersey number, further enforcing the team concept, and further highlighting how both script and cast breathe life into these nameless roles). As the team captain, #25, Isa Arciniegas is – to continue the earlier war motif – Pattonesque in a Napoleanic package. Cydney Moody’s #8 is the moody one. Angela Alise’s #00 is the lonely goalkeeper. Erin O’Shea is the red-headed, homeschooled, yogurt-livin’ outsider (think Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, except with mad ball-handling skills). And the heart and soul of the team are Natalie Joyce and Aurora Real de Asua. Joyce’s #7 has the mouth of a sailor but the problems and insecurities of a girl, while #14 is the ego to 7’s adolescent id. The teammates kick around conversations as feverishly and randomly as they do their soccer balls, again making it sound not just like how high school girls talk, but how people interact.

The teamwork on display does not stop with the script and its interpreters, however. Collette Pollard’s set gave this soccer dad, who’s spent too much time hanging out at fields both outdoors and under domes, flashbacks. Lighting by Keith Parham is spot on, as are the musical choices by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, both providing energy and intensity that match the actors’.

And so, this whole team comes together to not just tell a story of young girls, but of people. What starts as dissonant and diverse digressions between types and tropes turns into a realistic back-and-forth you’d hear not just on the field or in the mall or in a classroom, but at work, on the train, in the checkout line, on the street. Given great material to work with, the cast and crew of the Goodman Theatre’s production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves give us something that’s funny, sad, uncomfortable, cute, ugly, and beautiful – that is, art that pulls off the rare feat of feeling like real life. And, like, my teen daughter seconds that!

Published in Theatre in Review
Wednesday, 12 July 2017 22:19

Review: "HIR" at Steppenwolf Theatre

With “HIR” by Taylor Mac, Steppenwolf Theatre continues its legacy of pushing relevant and sometimes uncomfortable topics onto its audiences. Directed by Hallie Gordon, this is the Chicago premiere of Mac’s acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway hit. This vivid production is sure to unsettle some subscribers, but that’s the point. Mac’s script offers up laughs and lessons and is able to gets its point across without coming off as preachy.

What a treat it is to see ensemble member Amy Morton back on the Steppenwolf stage. Morton is a frequent director at the Steppenwolf but has been scarce since her much-praised performance as Martha in 2010’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which transferred to Broadway. Morton plays Page, the mother of a transgender teen, Max (Em Grosland) and recently discharged soldier Isaac (Ty Olwin). She is also caring for her ailing husband (Francis Guinan) who has been incapacitated by a stroke. Page has unusual ideas about politics and lifestyle and is finally able to express herself the way she wants without an oppressive husband and societal restrictions.

Playwright, performer and singer-songwriter Taylor Mac (otherwise known as “judy”) is hot right now. His one-man “24-Decade History of Popular Music” was shortlisted for the 2017 Pulitzer. There’s no one quite like judy. HIR is essentially a fictionalized thesis on gender and politics in America. Guinan’s feeble character represents the fragile white male ego and Morton’s character is the at-times militant voice of the future. That future is without gender, without color, and without boundaries. Page seems to relish in abusing her once violent husband. An apt metaphor. Mac has a great sense of humor about the LGBT community and that shines through, but his script is also dense with a vital cultural insight that suburban audiences need to hear in the age of Trump’s America.

Hallie Gordon’s vision for this show is spectacular. Collette Pollard has created a fitting set for the chaos of this family. Gordon’s cast is top-tier. You can’t do much better than Amy Morton and Francis Guinan. Morton quickly becomes the focal point of the play and displays an overwhelming capacity for physical comedy and emotional honesty. You can’t take your eyes off her. Guinan is extremely brave to tread the boards in nothing more than adult diaper, or even braver, a full-face of clown makeup. Without uttering more than a few intelligible sentences, Guinan turns in a complicated but moving performance. This is likely to be one of the most talked about shows in Chicago, and good for the Steppenwolf for continuing to take risks.

Through August 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. 1650 N Halsted Street. 312-335-3830 www.steppenwolf.org

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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