Everyone in the audience tittered away as Mitchell Winter hovered centimeters from the face of an audience member in the front row, unspooling, “What if I said, you are the single most important breath in my space? You are the first gear that turns the clock of my world.” Lean and athletic, he had burst into the theater through a locker door, stuffed against a wall collaged with stuff, all from home. Lamps and fabrics and toys and furniture. He had bounced around the open space and between the two sides of the audience, first reminding us of the unrealness. He said, bounding on all fours, “What if I said I am not what you think you see.” Trust nothing, Winter seemed to say; and yet.
Winter looked the bearded man dead in the eye — finding the rhythms of the words on his tongue, rocking them back and forth with force, saying, “You are the final drop of dew that breaks down the universal dam of miscommunication. I need you with every blood cell and cranial nerve I possess. And you believed me?” — and set up a dangerous game. Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play is playtime in a broken memory.
The audience lagged nervously, this actor (he said he was a human actor) right up in this man’s face, boundaries between the two stepped across the way a child would disregard them. Maybe those lines, between art and spectator, performer and audience, are as unstable as the ones we mark as the truth. The Wolf (Winter) tells us that the truth is a “wobbly thing.” He tells us this several times. We are reminded over and over again, as the set is pushed and pulled around the beige floor, things rise and fall from the ceiling, and a little puppet boy becomes the sun around which our entire evening orbits, that these truths are wobbly, this night is fake, and perhaps no one is who you think you see. A last line from the Wolf’s gambit lingers in the air: “Would that change anything?”
When a six-year-old child from Korea is dropped off unceremoniously by his adoptive father Peter (Christopher Barrow) at the San Francisco home of Robin (Nicole Villamil) and Ash (a brilliant Esco Jouléy) in an off-the-books rehoming situation, the adults must come to terms with the reality of the situation. It’s funny to use “reality” in a show that makes its theatricality so strikingly unreal, so overtly conjured and constructed. Jeenu, the child who is maybe not a child but a Wolf, is a puppet, earthy with beady eyes and magnetic hands to hold the spoon with which he eats his Pops and Kashi. It’s a visual metaphor that is direct and, in a manner, unsparing: Jeenu, tossed from one home that doesn’t one him to another that wants a child, seemingly any child, so badly that he was chosen from a Yahoo! forum, is a toy.
Carlo Collodi’s ghost haunts the little puppet boy, but while Pinnochio sought desperately to be real, for love to make him flesh and blood, Jeenu sprints in the other direction, his consciousness (or the playwright’s, or ours) a wolf, stronger, more agile, independent, self-sufficient. Less prone to pain. While Robin and Ash’s marriage and Ash’s boxing career trained by Robin’s brother Ryan head toward rocky territory, and Peter begins to express regret for his decision, the adults remain content for Jeenu to be a plaything for their histrionic dynamics about love, success, desire.
It would be a square show if it were just concerned with the family drama, but Jung cleverly inverts it, the adoptee not merely the wise, silent object to reaffirm a family’s goodness. As the Wolf gnaws at the fourth wall, he is given a full-fledged consciousness, an awareness of what the grownups are talking about that delicately levels childlike naivete and mature sobriety. In adoption dramas like The Quiet Girl or Lion or whatever, the child is a beautiful idiot, swept up in forces they cannot control, whose keenness is implied and never spoken, and a device for a well-trod dramatic irony. The kid sits on stairs and listens and says nothing. Or hears fights through doors. And the audience smiles and feels bad, this beautiful idiot a canvas onto which you too can project. But Jung, and director Dustin Miller, situates the audience in the Wolf’s interiority, the jungle gym he’s made to cope in, the spaces he’s trying to fill up.
If adoption stories are cinematically, dramaturgically, or literarily expedient vessels to get at some truth of human nature, explicitly unbound from traditional familial unit stories, Wolf Play succeeds because of its sobering awareness of the exploitation of those techniques and their not infrequent shallowness. Thus, Jung forces an audience to content with a character that’s not real, a situation that’s been amalgamated from research (particularly Meghan Twohey’s journalism on the underground adoption industry in the US), with such blunt theatricality that its facsimile is a confrontation. Can you empathize with a dramaturgical device? Jung whittles so much feeling and depth into transparent fakery, as if the ties between family themselves could be disassembled with stage craft ease.
Jeenu has violent tendencies and is only brought out of his shell when he and Ash grow closer. And you can see behind the bulbous head and the gangling limbs Winter transmutes Jeenu, through all of time and space, his emotions behind, into, and through the little puppet. His veiny arms tense up when Jeenu feels threatened, then give when he’s relaxed, he tucks his chin when Jeenu is shy, and Winter looks over his papier-mâché head when he’s defiant or daring. He is ferocious and fierce, scared and fragile, desperately playing the limits of his body and the body of the doll, aggressively resisting becoming the object the adults around him desperately want him to be.
Stories of adoption, which I have become obsessed with in lieu of having a personality, are nothing if not excellent ways to engage unsentimentally with the question of love: who is it for? Why do we do it? Who does it benefit? How do we do it? Whose interests is it ultimately in? An adoptive parent (or mine, at least) will tell you that their love is better, somehow morally superior because they chose to love. And Sondheim will tell you, “The choice was mistaken, the choosing was not.”
Jung, in her own way, has sifted through these questions, not only as a device for a kind of memory play or a story of dislocation and yearning, but ultimately the most alienating of truths: love and the self, these two broad, gargantuan concepts, are fictions that are capable of authenticity. That are made up, sprung from nothing and everything, nowhere and everywhere. The heart as it pumps to make a person, scarred or unscathed, is illusory. And in this playroom a void takes shape.
But it isn’t only Collodi who lurks as a ghost in Jung’s play, but a bit of Spielberg and Kubrick, too. AI: Artificial Intelligence imagines a dystopia where robot boys can be made and bought and loved, and they can love you back, even those who haven’t thought of the consequences. In both that and Wolf Play, a mother begins to doubt if the child is the version of the thing she wanted to love in the first place. In the former, the mother, maybe loving in the cruelest way, says, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.” Here, a mother says, “Does that change anything?”
Wolf Play runs through April 2 at MCC Theater.