By Lisa Kennedy, Special to The Denver Post
A play about a teen girl soccer team called “The Wolves” could signal yet another “mean girls” outing. Or perhaps have you leaning in for a too obvious riff on wolf-pack cohesion: Which one is the alpha? Who’s the beta? Is that one the poor omega?
To be sure, the young women depicted in the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s stealthily affecting production of Sarah DeLappe’s debut (a Pulitzer finalist) are hardly gentle. They’re competitors. They’re jocks who make needling jokes and off-color remarks on the way to (typically) winning matches. They’re also young adults, grappling with friendship and envy, teamwork and competition, each gnawing on her place in the order of things.
The playwright has told interviewers that some of her inspiration for the play’s tight focus on a team came from the camaraderie she’s witnessed in war flicks, a fave genre. From the start, the dialogue comes at the audience in barrage of chatter. And so, as the pitch black box of the Carsen Theater gives way to a field of green AstroTurf, noisy, warm-up conversations swing wildly from the fate of one of the last living leaders of Khmer Rouge’s genocide to preferences in feminine hygiene products and back again.
“We don’t do genocides until senior year,” says one player. “It’s like a mass grave in that trash can,” another remarks as she and some teammates run off stage toward an indoor playing field we never see. (She’s not talking about Cambodia.) If you think that’s just the lose language of teens, think again. For the playwright, their observations are a chastising example of the way the tragic rubs up against the trivial in so many of our day-to-day conversations.
DeLappe introduces her players by number, not name. For instance, 00 (Hannelore Rolfing) is the goalie with the nervous stomach; No. 7 (Erika Mori) is the cocky striker; the friend she’s constantly yammering at, that’s No. 14 (Catalina Garayoa); No. 8 (Tara Kelso) is willfully naive; and No. 11 (Rebekah Goldberg) is increasingly status conscious.
The actors distinguish their characters quickly. You may not recall their numbers but you will their personalities. Meek and too often concussed, well that’s No. 2 (Hannah Haller); No. 13 (Máire Higgins) is a wisecracking stoner; No. 25 (Lois Shih) is the captain who tries to keep them goal-focused.
None of these descriptions should, however, be taken as archetypes. DeLappe delves deeper, revealing their differences (and similarities) through their overlapping banter, in how they roll their eyes or laugh, how they argue or apologize.
When new girl No. 46 (Kate Parkin) arrives, she throws off the pack. Not just because she’s home- schooled and “needs a shower,” as one Wolf quips. No, the joke’s on them: She’s got skill. While there’s no “I” in team, as the cliché goes, there is one in scholarship. One afternoon, a recruiter with a clipboard sidles up to the coach — whom we never see but gather is not well regarded by the girls — and tweaks the tensions.
One of the many achievements of director Rebecca Remaly and her winning ensemble is that none of the actors — all presumably in their 20s — comes across as pretending to be younger. They’ve got the teen thing down.
The actual script comes with an epigram, courtesy of Gertrude Stein: “We are always the same age inside.” This is likely why coming-of-age tales speak to those of us who aged out of high school decades ago. DeLappe taps into familiar if conflicting feelings: the need to be part of something, the desire to be singular, the feeling of being an outcast, etc.
She also creates a vibrant squad of characters who feel very specific to this — their — moment. Extra credit comes for doing this without over-referencing social media. Sure, the players mention Skype and Facebook (a classmate is dubbed an “Insta-Whore” for her shameless selfies) but it feels natural to the characters’ daily flow without it being their raison d’etre.
As “The Wolves” closes in on its conclusion, the play is punctuated by deft lulls and telling silences. When an adult (Anne Penner) arrives — impressive for being unexpected — the team’s yaps, yelps and occasional growls give way to a rending, a necessary howl.