Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Mr. Wolf": A Mystery Unfolds

by John Glore

It begins with the image of a girl’s bare feet rubbing against an old rug.

But a moment later, the peace of that image is obliterated upon the arrival of a second character. His entrance into the opening scene of Rajiv Joseph’s Mr. Wolf, having its world premiere in the Julianne Argyros Stage, sets up a mystery. We learn soon enough that the man is Theodore Wolf … but what is his relationship to the barefoot, 15-year-old girl? He appears to be her caregiver and mentor, yet he also seems to revere her as a disciple would a prophet. She demonstrates an astonishing command of scientific concepts and seems eager to take on the biggest questions of the universe, and yet there’s something vulnerable and ingenuous about her. Those qualities only become more pronounced when Mr. Wolf tells her “The world is coming,” in a way that suggests impending doom. What are they so afraid of … and has it in fact come knocking, when the loud, insistent banging on the front door brings the play’s first scene to an end?

The explanation of that initial mystery comes relatively soon as the story unfolds, but before the play provides any answers it poses new questions, because in the second scene we leave behind Mr. Wolf and the barefoot girl and meet two new characters. Michael and Julie have been brought together by a similar tragedy that has struck each of their lives. Their respective responses to that tragedy are very different: Julie is lost and in despair, while Michael has become resolute about fixing what is broken. He has an almost fanatical belief in and devotion to his cause, and when he offers to fix things for Julie, too, she is suspicious of his motives—but his offer of hope and salvation proves difficult to resist.

How Julie and Michael are connected to the characters in the first scene won’t become clear until the end of the third scene and the beginning of the fourth—and then we meet the last of the play’s five characters, Hana, whose arrival only throws matters further into doubt. Hana has a plan that, if carried out, will overturn everyone’s lives.

If the preceding description seems cryptic, that’s because to give any more information about the initial circumstances of Mr. Wolf would be to deny one of the principal satisfactions of Joseph’s play: solving its puzzles. Mr. Wolf, the barefoot girl, Julie, Michael and Hana are connected by an event that happened long ago, but even as we begin to piece together the connections, we only move deeper into the mysteries of the human heart that are the play’s true subject.

The characters of Mr. Wolf are living in extremis: none of us is likely ever to experience the specific challenges that they face in their lives. But drama often uses the extreme to illuminate the universal, whether in a tragedy such as Oedipus Rex (a man unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother) or a fantastic comedy like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a man is turned into a donkey and becomes the love interest of the queen of the fairies). Exaggerated circumstances cast a brighter light on human psychology and social values, illuminating aspects of our experience that can be more difficult to discern and understand in the dim light of ordinary daily life.

From beginning to end, Mr. Wolf is a play of questions: Why do we have faith? What happens when the specific act of faith that has completely dominated our life and given it meaning is rewarded beyond our wildest hopes? When the faith that has defined us is no longer necessary—because it has been objectively proven—what then becomes our reason to live?

Or: How do we find hope when faith has been leached out of our hearts? How do we survive in the face of irredeemable loss? Is it better to know the worst has happened, or to continue to be left in the dark indefinitely, clinging to a tiny sliver of hope?

These are some of the questions that the characters in Rajiv Joseph’s play must grapple with; and if the play works as intended, we will grapple with those questions too.

And in the end, all the play’s questions finally point to the one big question every one of us must face at some point in our lives—if not repeatedly: How do we go on?

For one character, the answer may come in prayer; for another, in the solving of a mystery; and for two characters in the final moment of the play, the answer to that question begins to suggest itself when they share the simple pleasure of digging bare toes into a warm fuzzy rug.

And suddenly hope is there.

Rajiv Joseph

Rajiv Joseph has become one of the hottest playwrights in the American theatre since his breakthrough play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, debuted in Los Angeles in 2009 and moved on to a heralded Broadway run starring Robin Williams. “I’m tempted to call it the most original drama written so far about the Iraq war,” wrote the L.A. Times’ Charles McNulty, “but why sell the work short? The imagination behind it is way too thrillingly genre-busting to be confined within such a limiting category… Bengal Tiger marks the breakthrough of a major new playwriting talent.” The play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

South Coast Repertory commissioned Joseph to write a play for the company prior to the explosive success of Bengal Tiger; but that success meant SCR had to wait a few years for Joseph to fulfill the commission. In the meantime, other commissions and other new plays kept him busy, along with productions of various works at such theatres as off-Broadway’s Second Stage, the Alley Theatre in Houston, Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., TheatreWorks in the Bay Area and the Dallas Theatre Center.

But Mr. Wolf, the play Joseph finally submitted to fulfill his SCR commission, proved worth the wait. Like Bengal Tiger, Mr. Wolf demonstrates fierce intelligence, bold theatricality and keen psychological insight. It shows Joseph’s willingness to look into dark corners of human experience, as well as his ability to find light in the midst of that darkness.

Shepherding this world premiere production of Mr. Wolf is David Emmes, one of SCR’s two founding artistic directors. Emmes has staged numerous SCR world premieres, including several Amy Freed plays (The Beard of Avon among them) and works by Keith Reddin, Neal Bell and Tom Babe.

The design team for Mr. Wolf comprises Nephelie Andonyadis for sets, Leah Piehl for costumes, Lap Chi Chu for lighting and Cricket Myers for sound. All have multiple SCR credits, and Cricket Myers also designed sound for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in both its Los Angeles debut and its Broadway run (earning her a Tony nomination).

The cast includes Tessa Auberjonois, seen at SCR most recently in Absurd Person Singular and Becky Shaw; John DeLancie, an SCR veteran who has multiple television and film credits (including the role of Q in the “Star Trek” franchise); Jon Tenney, who appeared for seven seasons opposite Kyra Sedgwick on the TNT series, “The Closer,” and who made his SCR debut 18 years ago in the world premiere production of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain; Kwana Martinez, making her SCR debut after numerous appearances at many of the finest theatres in New York and across the country; and Emily James, currently an undergraduate at Cal State Fullerton, also making her SCR debut.

For more information on all the artists involved in Mr. Wolf, click here.

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