Theater Review: WOLF PLAY (Shotgun Players)

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by Tony Frankel on September 20, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Gabby Momah makes a star turn as Ash, a conflicted non-binary adoptive parent and up-and-coming boxer in Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play, a fascinating, thrilling, sad and sometimes elusive new play now making its west coast premiere at Shotgun Players in Berkeley, easily one of my favorite spaces for theater in the Bay Area. In addition to her riveting performance, Momah executes some serious boxing sequences which clearly involved intense training with boxing consultant Emmanuel Blackwell.

Caleb Cabrera as Ryan, Gabby Momah as Ash

I’m a big fan of South Korean-born Hansol Jung’s Wild Goose Dreams and was not disappointed by this new piece. Wolf Play, which had its world premiere at Oregon’s Artists Rep in 2019, is thoughtfully directed for Shotgun by Elizabeth Carter. In some ways, it is the complete opposite of Wild Goose Dreams, which was a play with a large cast, involving quite a bit of technology, and, barring a few moments (a penguin sticking its head out from a toilet!), pretty naturalistic. Wolf Play is, on the other hand, highly DIY, economical in its staging and casting, and very theatrical in the best ways.

Laura Domingo as Robin, Caleb Cabrera as Ryan

The directing is first rate and every, yes I mean every, moment is a directorial choice. Nothing here is by happenstance. Celeste Martore‘s set, Stephanie Johnson‘s lighting, and James Ard‘s sound design are all excellent. The set is a constant source of surprise for the audience in the best way, given some quick scene changes from a boxing ring to a living room. The script is quite streamlined and simple, and it would actually be quite easy to give a pretty exhaustive synopsis of the entire play in only a few sentences. Because of this, we’re allowed to spend time in moments in the way a busier play can’t afford to. It’s a dramatic Wilderesque examination of adoption and adaptation, family fusions and family fractures that is unique, poignant, inventive, imaginative and incredibly touching.

Gabby Momah as Ash, Laura Domingo as Robin

A Korean boy, Jeenu (Mikee Loria), is dropped off by his first adoptive father, Peter (Sam Bertken) into the house of a mixed-race queer couple Robin (Laura Domingo) and Ash (Gabby Momah). Supported, at first, by her macho brother Ryan (Caleb Cabrera), Robin takes in the child she desires so badly after discovering Peter’s listing on a Yahoo! chat room. Ash isn’t quite ready for this adoption pass-off. And the child thinks he’s a wolf, clearly a coping mechanism of his trauma from being passed along.

Caleb Cabrera as Ryan, Sam Bertken as Peter,
Laura Domingo as Robin, Gabby Momah as Ash

Jeenu frequently shares with us, alongside fun facts about wolves, a mysterious wolf-like consciousness that guides his inner life,. His shy, childish exterior is all the outside world can see via a Japanese-style Bunraku puppet, simply but expressively designed by Fred Riley.

 Laura Domingo as Robin

This is theater at its finest, a great example of the transient nature of theater. It takes committed work by the cast and well-choreographed staging for the show to move along as smoothly as it does. As such, all the boxing bells, spilled cereal and puppetry do not obscure the emotions and issues of identity, perspective and compassion at the heart of Wolf Play.

Mikee Loria as Wolf

Jung’s wild script is prismatic and unafraid to jump from representational to presentational. Two issues for me: While I understand the Brechtian approach to involve the audience, participation with patrons (such as Jeenu high-fiving one spectator) took me out of the play. The other is the cliffhanger ending, necessary to show how messy the situation has become, but should we feel unresolved as well?

Mikee Loria as Wolf

Still, Wolf Play touches many points in the debate around adoption, race, and class through inventive and emotional storytelling. Its approach to these topics is unique in how small and personal it feels, and the lengths it goes to defy the expectations of its audiences.

photos by Ben Krantz

Wolf Play
Shotgun Players
Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley
ends on October 1, 2023 EXTENDED to October 7, 2023
live streams online September  21, 2023
for tickets ($8–$40), visit Shotgun Players

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