A couple of new productions drew my attention over the weekend, both sporting a cast of at least eight players. Yet at the two dramas, the new Countess Dracula from The Actor’s Gym and the local premiere of The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, there wasn’t a single male performer among the 18 that I saw. Even more surprising, it was the older, more established company that was fielding more new faces.
There aren’t any particularly sharp canine teeth on display in The Wolves, for the title pack is a women’s soccer team, but director Sarah Provencal and her design team are making a point of fielding this high-school-aged club. ATC has turned Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus into a soccer practice field, a somewhat jarring experience after you park your car, since there’s a real practice field adjacent to the lot and the school building that houses Hadley.
In Evan Kinsley’s set design, the field and a scoreboard bisect the theater, and ticketholders can choose to sit on either side for a nicely simulated grandstand — and soccer mom — experience. The playing space was so large that ATC executive director barely made himself heard in his inimitable pre-show welcome, feeding my concern that the newcomers we were about to see would fare even worse.
Sarah DeLappe’s script and Provencal’s direction weren’t designed to allay such fears. Other than winning their next games and making it to the national tournament, the nine Wolves aren’t consumed by a single storyline as they gather for practices, and there can be multiple conversations vying for our attention at the same time, all equally tangential. Reminding me a bit of Annie Baker’s The Flick in its verité style, DeLappe develops her characters casually and obliquely as her teens’ conversations leap unexpectedly from immigration policy to Harry Potter to soccer strategy to coach’s hangover to the Khmer Rouge — and of course, juicy gossip about absent teammates.
Compounding our difficulties — and her actors’ — Provencal conspires with soccer trainer Kirsten Allen to keep the Wolves engaged in an ongoing cavalcade of stretching exercises and soccer drills while all these scattershot conversations are popping at us from all points of the field. There’s plenty for us to see as we sift through the trivialities for telling info, and there’s plenty for the never-further-identified #25, #13, #46, #2, #7, #14, #8, and #00 (the goalie) to do, prompted by #11, the movement captain.
Along the way, we learn that we are somewhere in Middle America, that the mysterious newcomer lives in a yurt, and that another’s dad works with immigrants. There are little markers that attach to most of the others: #00 darts off the field repeatedly to vomit, the slender #2 may be anorexic, #14 is Armenian, and the movement captain, while aching to attract the notice of a college scout, takes on the responsibility of making her teammates winners. She’ll take the silliest of them aside, #8, and chastise her for making hurtful remarks to another player.
As with The Flick, another darling of Pulitzer Prize committees in recent years, you’re likely to conclude that, behind the outward aimlessness of The Wolves, an inner aimlessness lurks as well. At times, I felt like The Wolves might be a first draft of a script that could become a TV pilot for a series that HBO or Lifetime would reject as too nebulous or punchless. There are definitely players here who pique our curiosity and promise to reward deeper exploration.
This ATC production reaches that limbo level because Provencal’s cast is so credible — both in inhabiting their roles and their soccer uniforms. I was most impressed by El Osborn as #7, the iconoclastic striker who is unexpectedly replaced by the socially awkward newcomer, Maevis Pair as an equally impressive #46. Osborn does a fine job with the glints of vulnerability that creep into #7’s haughty front after #46’s exploits on the pitch, revealing her longing for belonging when her stardom is broken. Pair evolves from her initial trepidations — counseling would likely be helpful for #46 — but she remains respectful toward #7 and a long distance from arrogance.
Maybe the fullest character on the team is Harley Winzenreid as #11, whose world is totally upended when she is no longer the hot college prospect but still the team leader. To be sure, DeLappe and Provencal provide Winzenreid with means to register the shifting landscape she copes with — and the cataclysms that befall the whole team collectively — but she’s interesting to watch as she effortlessly maintains leadership. Aside from the always disgruntled #7, who’s there to challenge her?
Not the two neurotic pups, Annarah Shephard as the nervous goalie, nor Hannah Kevitt as the inward and secretive #2, possibly anorexic. Entertaining as she may be as the ignorant and insensitive #8, Ahzjai Culbreth is well aware that she isn’t leader-of-the-pack material. What all of the teammates achieve, even as they expend so much athletic energy going through their pre-game paces, is a naturalness that I didn’t adequately appreciate until it was paused.
That’s when the one adult in the cast, Jennifer Poarch as Soccer Mom, makes a dramatic entrance and delivers a fairly lengthy monologue. Compared to haphazardness that precedes her, Soccer Mom seems stagey, and I found myself accusing Poarch of acting. What comes across, aside from a distinct impression that Soccer Mom isn’t sure why she’s there, is that she exits without deepening her connection with her daughter or the other Wolves. After spending 90 minutes with them, I found that I had only barely begun.