Stages

Review: Magical Wolf Play at Gift Theatre Will Make You Think and Break Your Heart

Arciniegas, Jeenu and Lin. Photo by Claire Demos

It sounds like a sad story. A couple adopts a child from another country, then decides “it’s not a good fit” and decides to un-adopt him. But if I tell you that the boy is a puppet who thinks he’s a wolf—that is a different kind of story. That’s Wolf Play by Hansol Jung at the Gift Theatre, sympathetically directed by Jess McLeod,

The play is opened by Wolf (both boy and puppet) played enchantingly by Dan Lin. He tells us he is not an actor human and continues with this poetic description of what and where we are.

“You are not what you feel you are, you are a spider the size of your eyelash. Or an eagle flying two thousand feet above our heads. Or the mother of the newest freshest pinecone dangling over that aisle. We are riding on the back of a giant turtle, hurtling through the cosmos, in a four point five four billion year race against the tiniest of the tiniest white easter rabbits….” And finally, “The truth is a wobbly thing, we shall wobble through our own set of truths like jello on a freight train, and tonight I add a bump to that journey and put to you my truth: I am the wolf….”

I often use brief quotations from well-written plays—and I use this long quote to illustrate what an inspired story and beautifully written script Hansol Jung has created and Gift Theatre is staging.

Glasse and McGhee. Photo by Claire Demos.

The 8-year-old un-adopted Korean boy (named Peter or Junior or correctly—Jeenu) comes to live with Robin (Jennifer Glasse) and her wife Ashley (Isa Arciniegas), a left-handed boxer on her way to turning pro. Ryan (Al’Jaleel McGhee), Robin’s brother, is Ash’s coach and boxing mentor. Robin, bubbling with enthusiasm to have a child, and Ash, not enthusiastic, are adopting from a website that promises adoption with no legal fuss. Jeenu’s adoptive father Peter (Tim Martin) brings him to their home. (He and his wife Katie have a new baby and it seems that Junior is in the way.) Robin has decorated a boy bedroom and filled the house with blue balloons. There’s just one piece of paper for Robin to sign, Peter says. It’s an informal (read: not-legal) transfer of custody.

The next morning, Ash and Jeenu begin the bonding process over breakfast cereal. (Cocoa puffs or kashi?) Despite her reluctance to adopt, Ash begins to take a liking to the sensitive Korean boy and is the one who actually comprehends the Wolf. Meanwhile, Peter, surprised that Jeenu has two mothers and no father, tries to keep in touch with Ryan, who he sees as a possible semi-father. Throughout the play, Wolf is the puppeteer and comments about wolf life, habits and culture, so by the end of the play, we have learned a lot about Wolf and wolves.

“Wolves are not friendly in general. Especially the lone wolf …. The wolf knows that he is alone, that all he has is his paws and his cunning to survive in the ever-changing environment. So we lay low. And watch.” And Wolf occasionally howls.

Puppet and Wolf. Photo by Claire Demos.

The story continues months later with Isa’s first pro match. Jeenu is having some problems in school. Peter keeps trying to interfere. There are legal problems. But Wolf is steadfast in his wolfness. Dan Lin is both adorable and cunning as Wolf and the puppet created of wood and fabric by Stephanie Diaz is surprisingly alive and knowing.

The story of Wolf Play may well—and should—remind us of all the world’s unwanted children and our own inability to take care of them. And to take care of ourselves. Wolf Play will make you laugh and break your heart.

Jess McLeod’s direction is pitch perfect as she helps the cast seamlessly blend the stories of a child, a wolf, a boxer and a family. Jennifer Glasse is lively and moving as a woman who desperately wants to be a mom. If you remember Isa Arciniegas as a fox in First Love Is the Revolution, you will perhaps understand how she is able to understand the Wolf. Arnel Sancianco’s set and Amanda Herrmann’s properties make this simple scenic design work magically. Lighting design is by Mike Durst, sound by Eric Backus and costumes by Stephanie Cluggish.

Wolf Play continues at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., through August 18. Tickets are $40-$50 for performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:30pm.

Puppet postscript. After this review was posted, I exchanged messages with Stephanie Diaz about her puppet design for Wolf Play. She told me about how the Jeenu puppet was created—and if you’re a fan of puppetry as I am, you’ll enjoy what she told me.

First of all, she said that Jeenu is mostly not wood, but rather various forms of papier-mâché, with bits of wire and foam here and there. You can see in the first photo above how Dan Lin moves the puppet with the “handles” that Stephanie built–those are actually wood. She also mentioned that director Jess McLeod played a major role in how the puppet looked. She wanted him to look vaguely troubled and Stephanie translated that into a furrowed brow and fixed fist. “I’m astonished myself at how much of the work those features really did when put in motion,” Stephanie says. “I’m most interested in economy of movement and universality of gesture, so [Jess] really blessed this puppet with that directive.”

Puppet Jeenu is a small part of the design and props created for Wolf Play, but he plays a large role in the magic.

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