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Print Version

Devised and performed by Rachel Baker, Isobel MacKinnon, Stephanie Cairns and Fiona McNamara
Directed and produced by Claire O’Loughlin

at People’s Cinema, 57 Manners Street, Wellington
From 29 Nov 2013 to 30 Nov 2013

Reviewed by James McKinnon, 1 Dec 2013

Wolf opens by subjecting the audience to the impassive, inscrutable gaze of the performers, an inversion of traditional theatrical protocol. The wolves watch us, and sniff us a little, as we file in to the space, but they don't betray any signs of human emotion. They seem truly feral, and this is quite unnerving.

One of the few truly universal premises about theatre is that it is about what it means to be human: so even stories that are acted out by non-human characters are really only interesting to the extent that the characters are anthropomorphic. We like Bugs Bunny because he's a person in the shape of a rabbit. The characters in Wolf are absolutely not people in wolves' clothing, or if they are, only in a strictly literal sense (their costumes consist of wolf masks and bits of fur – you kind of want to pet them, but you're pretty sure they'd bite) so don't expect a linear narrative about three foxy wolves (ha!) sticking it to the bear (ha ha!).

The performers seem to be attempting to submerge their humanity and embody ‘wolfness'. They communicate only through gesture and appropriately lupine noises, and they do not recognize conventions of polite behaviour or personal space. They do not seem to care if we empathize or identify with them, which is another major departure from theatrical convention. They also have few individuating characteristics: their costumes are essentially identical and while I could distinguish the performers, I could not distinguish them as different characters.

Consequently, even though there is no fourth wall (the wolves often infiltrate the audience), there is a huge gulf between the audience and the performers, a strong sense of “Us vs. Them.” Or perhaps sheep vs. wolf: toward the end of the performance, the wolves attempt to close the distance by getting the audience to join them in a rousing howling session, but to do so they have to literally herd the spectators into the centre of the room, an act that generates visible anxiety and apprehension among some spectators.

I feel more like a witness at a peyote ritual than a participant. The performers' aggressive, wild attitudes and behaviour also have a childlike quality, and if some of the adult spectators seem mildly disturbed by the untamed, unhygienic chaos, a six year-old in the audience is unperturbed and quite delighted.  

Wolf also dispenses with plot, or at least I am unable to ‘read' the performance as a narrative. The wolves do some things and then they stop. The action is presented in a series of vignettes, and there are several moments in the show where it feels more like we're switching gears or changing slides than going on a journey. To establish a sense of coherence, rhythm, and purpose, the wolves rely on Stephanie Cairns's score and Claire O'Loughin's direction, rather than any sense of cause-and-effect logic in the sequence of action.

The show's publicity material (and the composition of the company) point to an investigation of the intersections of the feral and the feminine, and the performers evidently delight in rejecting conventional human feminine behaviour and embracing their inner wolves, which leads a fellow spectator to identify the play as “post-post-feminist.”

Although I appreciated the experimental minimalism – Wolf asks, as I see it, whether you have theatre without character, dialogue, or plot. I might have enjoyed the play more if it offered me more to play with, more points of intrigue or affective appeal. This could come from a more coherent sense of building action and rising tension, or a puzzle to solve, or a basis for developing empathy with the characters. I get that wolves are wild animals and we can't ever really ‘understand' them, but I at least want to try to connect with them.

As a lifelong misanthrope (and canophile), I don't need much to be persuaded to abandon humanity and throw my lot in with the wolves, but I need a little more than Wolf offers me.
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Editor posted 2 Dec 2013, 02:34 PM

Just for the record, the invitation to review this short season of Wolf stated: “This is a project in development, which we are looking for feedback on.”