‘The Wolves’ at Horizon Drops the Ball

In theory, the Horizon Theater’s choice to put on a play with an all-female cast is exciting, but the flat, convoluted script made “The Wolves” an ultimately disappointing choice. The ensemble cast play about an all-female indoor soccer team was — surprisingly — a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 and played at Horizon until March 3. Despite some script and acting issues, the Horizon Theater production boasted a full house with nearly 150 attendees during its Feb. 17 performance.

The play follows a high school’s indoor soccer team as the athletes practice and warm-up before their games. The play itself is difficult to summarize, because there isn’t much of a story arc. While the characters touch upon a number of very heavy topics of discussion, they seem to lack genuine connections and never truly dive deep into complex issues. Because there are no themes that tie the issues together, for example, we are left wondering why a scene begins by characters talking about a genocide they learned in class, and end the discussion talking about an offstage character’s social anxiety. While mental illness and tragedy don’t necessitate a whole plot line by themselves, the script simply breezes by without taking a careful look at either. One exception, perhaps, is when the characters talk about their grief and changed perspectives when tragedy strikes one of the team members just before their final game. Even then, while the audience ends up seeing how this tribulation affects the characters at the end of the play, the lack of connection between the scenes and themes throughout is confusing.

The play’s staging is engaging, as the realistic movements of soccer practice, stretches and team warm-ups punctuate the dramatic moments in the script both visually and audibly. The set is a simple soccer field, and the steps between the seats and the stage sides are used occasionally,  highlighting the dialogue and actors on the stage without distractions. The lighting is also simple, so when it changes certain moments become accentuated: even if nothing is happening onstage, you know to expect something important.

Despite the fact that the designers made these strong choices for the piece, it somehow still feels unsatisfying. This seems to be due to the weak script. The play’s format doesn’t allow the audience to get to know individual characters well enough. In fact, each character in the play’s ensemble cast is only defined by one prominent characteristic that allows the audience to recognize them. While this does succeed in making visibly memorable characters, they feel like caricatures rather than real people. Many of these characters have identity and mental health-related problems, too, which aren’t developed to their fullest extent and don’t advance the plot.

This play, especially the characters, are reminiscent of a show like “Glee,” in which an ensemble cast seems to embody different issues that high schoolers face. But in this case, there is no music and a lack of character development. One character is revealed to have an eating disorder, and then it is never brought up again and none of the characters find out. Another character allegedly terminated a pregnancy, but that is also never discussed at length. These mini-plots feel like a violation of the Chekhov’s Gun principle (if you introduce a plot point or prop, such as a gun, it must be used before the narrative ends) — a bunch of potential stories and character arcs become forgotten. While in reality people may not discuss these issues much, the theater is a good place to push back against misconceptions and facilitate discussion. The play doesn’t achieve this, however, and the characters seem to be rooted in this one characteristic or event rather than depicted as complex beings. It feels almost as if playwright Sarah Delappe had a checklist of things to discuss, but gave up on developing them or the characters after the issue was first mentioned.

The way the characters are portrayed makes it clear that, while the play might be about teenage girls on a soccer team, it likely doesn’t resonate with that demographic because the depictions are by and large unrealistic. The teens are portrayed as each having only one random trait, and jokes are created around their gaps in knowledge and speech patterns. The actors use an inauthentic “teenager voice,” consisting of a higher pitch than normal with copious amounts of “like”s and “um”s, distracting from the story rather than adding to their characterization. The cast’s depiction of their characters has an overall distancing, patronizing effect on audience members.

Representing young women, and respective issues that young women face onstage, is an enterprising concept, and “The Wolves” deserves credit for attempting this feat. The way the play is written, however, fails to deliver its initial promises and ultimately reinforces stereotypes. Horizon Theater tried to ameliorate a flawed script, and perhaps the committees that choose Pulitzer Prize finalists saw something I didn’t. However, it may not be received by young audiences — especially young women — as an accurate representation of our experience.

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