Sand-colored with beady black eyes and a throaty howl, the character on the middle of “Wolf Play” is and isn’t what he appears. Wolf, who serves because the narrator, is an easy however expressive puppet product of wooden, cardboard and papier-mâché on this probing and playful exploration of household by Hansol Jung.
Free-limbed and rising only a few ft off the ground of the tiny stage at Soho Rep, Wolf represents a 6-year-old boy who undergoes one wrenching separation after one other. The American couple who undertake him from South Korea resolve they will’t deal with him and the calls for of their new child too, in order that they discover one other household for the boy by promoting on a Yahoo message board.
An abandonment so terrible and absurd requires fierce survival instincts. Maybe that goes to clarify why the boy isn’t a boy in any respect, however a wolf who longs for a pack, as Mitchell Winter, the grownup actor maneuvering the puppet, insists.
Wolves get a foul rap, Winter tells the viewers, which is seated on both facet of the stage. The lone ones might snatch crimson hoods, however they don’t make mischief for its personal sake. It’s a pure response for familial creatures left to fend for themselves, crouched defensively a lot of the time. “However tales want battle,” he says, “and, boy, do wolves know combat.”
“Wolf Play,” which opened on Monday, proposes that “the reality is a wobbly factor.” In Jung’s freely associative panorama, which means permitting a puppet to be a boy, a boy to be a wolf and a wolf to be an actor in a knit cap with pointy ears (costumes are by Enver Chakartash).
The play directed by Dustin Wills and offered with Ma-Yi Theatre Company, portrays a traumatic state of affairs, however with an antic disposition and a goofy coronary heart. How would a boy reply to those wounds however with growls, howls and swinging paws? It appears an excessive amount of for one being to course of, but there’s a lightness right here that chases away the shadows.
Wolf, a unstable and reactive jumble of joints, is handed off by Peter (Aubie Merrylees), the daddy who adopted him, to Robin (Nicole Villamil) and her spouse, Ash (Esco Jouléy). Robin is raring to turn out to be a mom, whereas Ash is a boxer prepping to go professional and reluctant to tackle a distraction like a toddler. Ryan (Brandon Mendez Homer), who’s Robin’s brother and Ash’s coach, appears supportive of the adoption — till Wolf’s place within the pack appears to threaten his personal.
If the play has a love plot, it’s between Wolf and Ash, a prototypical fighter with a troublesome exterior and smooth middle. Ash is nonbinary, and is the primary particular person to whom the boy speaks out loud. “Wolf Play” suggests there’s an animality connecting us that transcends gendered social scripts; kinship and love are wild and don’t play by any guidelines. Peter, nevertheless, objects to the absence of a standard father within the boy’s new house.
Performances from the ensemble are uniformly robust and suited to the manufacturing’s intimate scale. Winter’s double feat as an brisk narrator and a delicate puppeteer is so nimble that the boy usually seems to be a separate residing factor, endearing one second, a terror the subsequent (Amanda Villalobos is the puppet designer).
However casting a wolf as a protagonist turns into a difficult gesture when expressing internal emotions is restricted to encyclopedic information in regards to the species. (“Wolves are cautious, the masters of survival.” “Wolves suck at being alone.”) Although Jung’s narrator appears to vow entry to the story’s emotional core, there may be solely a lot that taxonomy can illuminate.
Wills’s manufacturing has the exuberant restlessness of a crayon drawing tacked to the fridge, chaotic however underlaid with a cautious inner logic. A door on wheels, mismatched chairs and blue balloons (from Wolf’s “welcome house” occasion) are roving fixtures of You-Shin Chen’s set. Barbara Samuels’s lighting makes prodigious use of tone and darkness, whereas the sound design by Kate Marvin evokes the grating high quality of a kid’s crying.
If tales want conflicts, as Wolf suggests, the climactic ones right here — a bout within the ring, the inevitable custody battle — finally really feel manufactured and considerably inappropriate. There’s an unruly high quality to Jung’s concept of what theater may be, jagged and untethered, coy and dreamlike. It’s thrilling to see that potential unleashed on the vagaries of affection, even when it’s not so simply tamed.
By way of March 20 at Soho Rep, Manhattan; sohorep.org. Working time: 1 hour 40 minutes.