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Theatre in Review: Wolf in the River (The Flea Theater)

Kate Thulin. Photo: Hunter Canning

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Wolf in the River is the dirtiest show in town. Not the most pornographic -- although a case could be made -- but the most covered in the soil of the earth. The interior of the Flea has been turned into -- well, I don't know what: The walls are lined with wallboard covered with blotches of spray paint and graffiti doodles; one wall features a large picture of Christ at Gethsemane. The audience is seated in a circle around a mound with flowers growing out of it. The actors are dressed in filthy, stained rags and/or underwear. Some of them root around in the dirt. Others wander, looking dazed. A young lady, her feet covered in blood, walks an imaginary high wire. Another huddles in a corner, scrawling on the floor with a piece of chalk. A young man practices lifting his legs in a goose-step formation. Someone else offers a handful of dirt to an audience member. Suddenly, everyone begins to hum, and the actor Jack Ellis, who plays The Man, who is really a wolf -- don't ask -- emerges from the audience and scatters various items of clothing belonging to a young girl, who then enters naked and scoops them up. She is Tana, and we are led to believe that she will be dead before the evening is over.

What follows is a wildly overstaged and mostly incoherent tale focusing on the fates of Tana and her brother, Dothan, a dishonorably discharged veteran, members of a community who endure a feral existence along the edge of a river. (We, the audience, are the river, by the way; The Man says so.) All of them appear to be under the thumb of a woman named Monty, for reasons I couldn't explain if a gun were pointed at my head. (As the script helpfully points out, "She runs shit in this part of the world.")

Nothing much happens in Wolf in the River, which fades from one scene of depravity to the next. Pin, one of Monty's associates, enters with a rubber blow-up doll (with the face of Miley Cyrus affixed to it), throws it on the ground, and takes it from behind. Dumptruck Lorna , Monty's mother (played by Ellis), demonstrates her maternal skills by commenting, "Little fucker crawled out of me like a thief." Aikin, another Monty henchwoman, is addicted to the flowers in the mound, which she eats avidly. Monty, who goes around rudely taking blood samples from the other characters and saying things like "That's pussy's so torn up you couldn't see it at a bait shop," suddenly shows up dressed like a medical technician, lamenting the disappearance of Tana. A flashback shows Dothan in the war, apparently capturing a local girl and barbecuing her for his men to eat. Meanwhile, The Man delivers speeches, like the following mouthful, in a rapid-fire holler:

"The moon is a sickled leopard's tooth pinned to obsidian, its light softly silvering the violent undulations scoring the skin of your unforgiving water. Spiders and worms conspire to spin the lustrous silks of lunacy. The night owl's hoots are quick invisible daggers. Tree frogs bark like hellhounds contorted in attitudes of frenzied madness. The throb of cicadas is so intense it feels like it is coming from inside you." It was around this time that I began to yearn to stick it to The Man.

Grotesquely overwrought, possessed of a mise-en-scène so seamy that you may want to get a blood test after leaving the theatre, and filled with passages so purple they could take the grand prize in any edition of The Bulwer-Lytton Contest, Wolf in the River is a would-be shocker undone by its sheer oversupply of grim and grimy details. Even for playwright Adam Rapp, who, by his own admission, revels in the details of various bodily fluids, this one is a bit much. Acting as his own director, Rapp seemingly has no one to point out the moment when his taste for the horrible descends into shtick. Other oddball features include the occasional disco dance break and the audience participation gag that brings the show to a close.

The members of the Bats, the Flea's resident troupe, have time and again shown themselves to be ready for anything, and so it is here: Wolf in the River features enormously committed performances from Ellis, Kate Thulin (Tana), Maki Borden (as Debo, Tana's sort-of boyfriend and the rare non-fiend in the cast), William Apps (Dothan), Xanthe Paige (Monty), Karen Eilbacher (Aikin), and Mike Swift (Pin). Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design creates as sordid an environment as anyone could wish. Masha Tsrimring's lighting confidently reshapes the entire theatre as needed. Michael Hili and Hallie Elizabeth Newton's costumes show they certainly know a thing or two about distressed clothes. Brendan Connelly and Lee Kinney's sound design is filled with sinister effects.

I have no idea what Rapp intended with Wolf in the River; I do know that he pushes his premise to the point of boredom, or giggles, or both. If you attend, don't dress up; it gets mighty dirty in the theatre. -- David Barbour

(25 March 2016)

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