Written & directed by Adam Rapp

Always provocative, often poetic, playwright-director Adam Rapp blends the mythic with the mundane in this potent exploration of the tribulations of coming of age in the wild backwaters of rural America. Borrowing from the traditions Greek drama, pagan ritual and magic realist literature (with a bit of VH1 glitter thrown in), WOLF IN THE RIVER offers an entrancingly primal approach to theatrical storytelling.

Sporting a sinewy physique and a ringing voice, The Man (Jack Ellis) kicks off the proceedings with a soliloquy somewhere between spoken word art and Baptist homily. Carrying us back and forth in time, he weaves a fable of a hardscrabble hamlet and the dangers of trying to escape its confines. There is little adult supervision in this backwater community, which is separated from the rest of the world by a river that teems with natural and supernatural predators. The local urchins, who are often high on indigenous poppy-like flowers, take their orders from the despotic Monty Mae Maloney (Xanthe Paige). Like a tribal leader, Monty waves a scepter adorned with a gator’s head, and summons her feral enforcer, Aikin (Karen Eilbacher) to intimidate anyone who steps out of line. Shy Tana (Kate Thulin), lives with her older brother Dothan (William Apps), an Iraq War veteran who suffers from Post Cannibal Orgy Stress Disorder. Tana’s job is to runs errands for the gang, including delivering food to Monty’s housebound, senile, occult-practicing mom (Ellis) and home. But lately, the whole town has begun to notice that the self-conscious 16-year-old is blossoming into womanhood. Tara is timid around her fellow villagers, but her confidence grows when she catches the eye of Debo (Maki Borden), a likeable – and gainfully employed – boy from a better-off town. He just might be Tana’s ticket out of indigence. But to get to Debo’s place, she’ll have to cross the hazardous river. Here be monsters, and though kindhearted man-child Pin (Mike Swift) is willing to help, Tana’s fate will ultimately be decided through the intervention of unseen forces.

In keeping with the story’s recurrent motif of magic circles, Rapp and scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado frame the action in the meta-round. The audience, seated in a circle, is itself encircled by additional playing space, and often a member of the Lost Choir, (Alexandra Curran, Jack Horton Gilbert, Paul Harkin, Artem Kreimer, Derek Christopher Murphy, and Casey Wortmann) can be heard crawling or chanting behind the patrons. A particular effective scene involves Debo helming a raft in languid circles around the little island where Tana is sunbathing. It’s all done without effects, with Borden using his miming skills to transmogrify the floor into a placid lake. Michael Hili & Hallie Elizabeth clad the cast in rough-hewn, revealing costumes and masks that embody the show’s earthy mysticism, while Masha Tsimring’s lighting design evokes a kaleidoscope of real and imagined landscapes. There are times when Rapp’s dithyrambic dialogue seems be trying too hard, especially when the characters rhapsodize on the nature of the cosmos. Thankfully most of the play consists of more character-driven beats, in which the language of regional speech achieves an affecting musicality without calling attention to itself. The Bats (the Flea Theater’s resident acting company) leap into their roles with their customary zeal, clearly trusting Rapp’s vision and committing dauntlessly to the show’s physical and emotional demands. By turns fanciful and viscerally naturalistic, WITR gives them omething they can sink their teeth into.

WOLF IN THE RIVER continues through May 16, 2016 at The Flea Theater,  41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets), New York, NY 10013. Tickets: https://web.ovation-tix.com/trs/pr/954298

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