Wolf in the River: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Waiting for Wolf in the River to start, you may suspect if Adam Rapp's new play will be postapocalyptic. The signs are there: the walls scrawled with graffiti, the ensemble kitted out in filthy disaster wear, the crackling hum and buzz of dying technology in the air. With a strong design team, Rapp has given the Flea a creepy Lord of the Flies–meets–The Walking Dead ambiance that presages a recognizably grim dystopian vision. But Rapp's lyrical horror fable doesn’t look forward; rather, it's sunk hip-deep in its ’70s predecessors. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre looked just like this, and no one tried to palm that one off on the future.
In Rapp's catastrophically impoverished South, overlord Monty (Xanthe Paige) rules a band of burnouts while collecting their blood. Our orphan heroine Tana (a marvelously natural Kate Thulin) serves at Monty's pleasure, but she's got her eye on escape. If she can get across the river, she'll find her way to her boyfriend Debo, to safety, maybe even to Illinois. Wolf in the River is grimly indulgent—a gothic folktale. Members of the Flea's house company, the Bats, punctuate the play with weird rituals; set designer Arnulfo Maldonado fills the plywood-clad room with mounds of real dirt, and costumers Michael Hili and Hallie Elizabeth Newton seem to have dipped everyone in mud.
Like his horror forebears, Rapp enjoys putting a girl in peril. Tana is described in the script as “a girl, 16, ready,” and Rapp makes unreconstructed prurience the show's defining characteristic. In the first moments of the show, a crazed narrator called the Man (Jack Ellis) shows us poor Tana's underwear, sniffs and snarls at it. Then Thulin runs in naked to tremble at his feet; the Man says she is doomed to be eaten by the vicious people around her, and reveals how much he liked devouring a woman's heart that “ain't no bigger'n a fist.”
Though Wolf has trouble sustaining its fever-dream intensity, there's no doubt that Rapp can write. In fact, Rapp can write a lot: There are spiraling soliloquies for the Man (Ellis doing a go-for-broke Matthew McConaughey impression), shrieking harangues for Monty, a baroque PTSD breakdown for Tana's vet brother (William Apps) and an adorable meet-cute scene for Tana and Debo (an excellent Maki Borden). This last is sweeter if you force yourself to forget that Tana is meant to be 14 at that point. The show, though, keeps talking about Tana's “slight, vernal, unbroken body,” which makes it hard to ignore.
Rapp clearly loves horror, but this attempt to import the style onto the stage doesn't quite work. A few of the flaws are in execution: As a director, Rapp creates inventive environmental staging, but he urges his actors into loud performances rather than frightening ones. Even the dialogue, Rapp's strong suit, turns against him at times. Overripe language about bodies (“That pussy's so torn up you couldn't sell it at a bait shop”) and violence (“God's voice is the sound of dirty children screaming through their nostril holes”) wants so much to freak us out that its excess veers into nonsense, and the play falls into the same trap its title does. Wolves, yes, are scary. Rivers can be scary too. But a wolf in a river? That isn't scary; that's just a wet dog.—Helen Shaw
The Flea Theater (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Adam Rapp. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.