[Bend it like who?]
There’s an ongoing frustration in theatre when it comes to female roles that has been addressed over and over again. Even in 2019 it’s uncommon to witness complex female characters on stage, let alone with an all female cast. This winter Silo Theatre leads the charge by delivering us Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play The Wolves.
The Wolves follows a high school-aged, suburban, female soccer team across five weeks of training sessions, giving us a look into their lives as they juggle topics like the Khmer Rouge to the benefits of different sanitary products. Playing out in an almost episodic pace, with no real driving force behind the action of the play, we become witness to the way these young women’s identities are forged as they navigate the gulf between childhood innocence and the destabilising realisations of all that adulthood has to offer. A disruption to the team comes in the form of newcomer, #46 (played by Shortland Street’s Akinehi Munroe), however, it takes much more than the threat of new blood to uproot the bonds formed between these adolescents. This American script translates to kiwi culture better than most, however, the few added Kiwi-isms feel a little jarring against the text.
The core cast is made up of NINE young women. Nine unique female characters that are all given enough time and space to build as recognisable individuals. Even with the constant teenage chatter, Delappe skillfully weaves in the right amount of detail about each character to make us feel for each and every one. DeLappe has been quoted in interviews about her frustrations with the stock female tropes that female characters are often shoehorned into, and sought to write women with substance and nuance. It is refreshing to see a one act play tackle the development of nine female characters that each have their own purpose and idiosyncrasies that sit outside of their relation to men or their sexual currency – especially when you consider the stacks of male-written, three-act plays that spit out carbon copies of two-dimensional tropes flitting between the girl next door, the mother and the whore. There’s not a pixie dream girl in sight, and I for one revel in it! It wouldn’t be surprising to me to find that everyone sitting in the audience at Q Loft could find multiple examples of young women they went to high school with on that stage, and perhaps even reflections of themselves.
The Silo team has made some brave choices with their casting this season, with the core cast of women all under the age of twenty-two, most still at high school themselves, with the majority making their professional stage debuts. By investing in these young performers Silo demonstrates its commitment to developing our industry’s talents and welcoming the new generations (and storytellers) onto our stages.
Silo doesn’t pass up the opportunity, however, to bring in some well-loved talent for the only older role in the show. Toni Potter blows away the audience with her short but explosive performance as “Soccer Mum”. Grappling with fresh grief, she inappropriately unloads her inner monologue onto the team in the last few moments of the play. Her manic, inward delivery is enough to make you tense up into a ball and shy away from the pain that so clearly tumbles out of her. On the other hand, the actors witnessing this carry the tension superbly, forcing us all to collectively hold our breath until Tatum Warren-Ngata breaks the silence with a well timed gasp. The performances from all of the core cast are electric; they deliver DeLappe’s dialogue with clarity, despite slippery conversations, and the tension in the air is constantly palpable as we witness the ever shifting social dynamics within the team.
Another star player in this production is the set design, executed by Ruby Read under the mentorship of John Verryt. Set up like an indoor soccer field, the audience sits in traverse flanking the soccer pitch lined with bright green astro turf. Sean Lynch’s lighting design mimics the harsh flood lights that spectator sport demands, leaving no blade of plastic grass or subtle side eye to a friend missed. The audience is brought directly to the sidelines, shoulder to shoulder, peeking through plastic nets at the players on stage. Given it’s dimensions, Q Loft is transformed into a surprisingly intimate space. The purpose of design isn’t necessarily to completely recreate an accurate depiction of a scene, but to evoke it: Read’s set design with Lynch’s lighting choices make me feel the buzz of excitement that crackles in the air before a game, my brain conjures up sounds of shouting teenagers and the echoes of soccer balls smacking the turf. I’m no longer sitting in a black box theatre, but in the world of the Wolves.
DeLappe’s script is far from conventional, with it’s chaotic bursts of overlapping dialogue, it’s refusal to follow a traditional narrative climax and the rejection of “show not tell” action on stage. This move away from the structures of traditional storytelling and theatre making marks an exciting shift. Theatre makers like DeLappe, who have been sitting on the sidelines, benched for their gender, ethnicity or training, are no longer willing to be told what they can or can’t do as writers. They’re writing themselves and challenging all the structures put in place along the way by the gate-keepers of theatre past. Whilst it has become pretty common to do away with traditional three act structures, DeLappe strays further away from playwriting “rules” by only giving us the action through the chaos of high energy dialogue thrown across the pitch during warm-ups and drills. All of the main action and driving forces happen completely offstage. Director Sophie Roberts skilfully navigates what could be an inane barrage of dialogue and confusing tangents by setting a rhythmic pace in the delivery. This allows for a solid portrait of these young women’s lives and their connections to each other to slowly build over the ninety minutes leading up to the choking final moments of the play.
Now half-way through the 2019 Auckland theatre season, The Wolves dominates the competition: don’t miss the chance to cheer them on.
The Wolves plays Q Loft until 13 July