Let’s just get it out of the way first. The Wolves kicks ass.
Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-nominated play about an all-female indoor soccer team had its Australian debut at the Old Fitzroy last year with Red Line Productions. That staging, with a one change to the casting, makes a heroic return at Belvoir St.
Exhilarating, funny, viscerally rhythmic and pulsing with a chaotic vitality, it captures a group of indomitable young women as they run the gauntlet of adolescence, that volatile time when identities are forged, resilience is tested, awkwardness rampages and the future plots – then stages – its ambush on innocence.
As a team, The Wolves are united and undefeated. Off the field though, you might think they have little in common. Their interests, backgrounds and belief systems diverge. One player, a big gawky sweetheart, knits scarves for Amnesty International. Another is a master wit, another a sassy goofball. There’s a socially anxious goalie, and a queer captain who is no-nonsense and rocks a defiant, indie-cool poise. And then there’s the new girl, number 46, who can tell a titmouse by its “rusty flanks” and lives in a yurt.
Skirmishes often threaten to break out. Most times the air is thick with backhanded comments, bitchy digs and the kind of naive gaffes endemic of teenage girls. (“I think she lives in a yoghurt“). But they have a bigger battle to fight, and this shared struggle neuters malicious intent. Accepting and finding joy in each other’s differences, and when support means survival at least and shared triumphs at best, solidarity becomes a talisman that protects them from harm.
And, we find out, they’re all kinds of vulnerable.
Number 46 turns out to be a killer player, but knowing the rules of soccer are one thing and understanding how the group makes its own social sport are another thing entirely. Listening to the dialogue of this play can be dizzying – this is not a play for the drowsy – as conversations play out in an overlapping medley, with topics as different as the Khmer Rouge and tampons, caged Mexicans and ghosts.
Totally naturalistic, in other words. Though these girls live in middle America, I could’ve been on the Perth ovals of year 11 Phys Ed again (eavesdropping with dumb, yearning awe; I never could hack banter).
All the while, in perfect synchrony with their speech, there is movement. In an impeccably timed choreography of drills, warmups, cooldowns and gleeful shenanigans, the scenes thrum with coordinated energy and intent. Ruptures in the rhythm are where built-up tension explodes: when comedy erupts, or some kind of critical learning occurs, or a relationship is tested and reforged anew.
With all this nonstop movement on stage, the set is minimal, consisting of just two side benches on glowing lime-green AstroTurf (and one more bench than was at the Old Fitz, apparently) and a floor-to-ceiling net separating audience from stage. This mesh creates of the girls’ world a microcosm, and turns the spectator into something of an intruder, conscious they are not of the tribe. “This is not your turf,” DeLappe wrote.
A net has practical uses besides. Without it, an audience member would likely get bopped by one of the multiple soccer balls in play.
Not that we see actually see a game. These epic battles take place in the imagination. Instead, the peripheral activity is made centre: the training, the anticipation, the ongoing education into the complex art of physical and social interaction – sometimes graceful, sometimes graceless, always a risk the girls courageously take.
Another thing we don’t see: men. The coach is a dude, but he’s a probable alcoholic and a dead cert slacker. The team will occasional register his presence on the field margins, but he’s also imaginary, disembodied and effete.
The impact of this decision is profound. When women in western culture are overwhelmingly defined by their relation to men, in The Wolves the audience is made to see these teenage girls on their own terms. Their vigorous bodies may demand our attention but, to quote DeLappe, they exist, “not as eye candy or symbolic vessels but as muscular, dexterous, capable, contradictory, and fallible individuals”.
It’s not misandry that’s operating here. It’s the idea – one rarely exercised in cultural texts – that men aren’t required to validate female stories or bodies. As the team negotiates this un-encroached space, we realise them as powerful contenders in the ferocious game ahead, capable agents of their own uncertain futures.
We can’t take their outspokenness for granted, either – even and especially when this lack of self-censorship results in a stupid remark. It’s a rare thing, after all, for women to display ignorance without being penalised, or hit by a wave of derision; or for a dissident female voice to speak out without a mass retaliative campaign coercing her to silence. In this context, seeing the team be clumsy, irrepressible goofs is an oddly empowering thing to behold.
For such a character-driven script, casting director Daisy Hicks must’ve felt the heat. Lucky for us, she scouted the best. The nine actors have equitable stage time, and that their characters aren’t thinned out or scrapping for attention in the 90-minute play seems a miracle. Instead, each one is personality-rich and utterly resonant. As I watched, I kept thinking ‘Oh, I like her best, she’s awesome, I wanna be 15 again and be her friend,’ and then changing my mind.
While this contemporary American play will occasionally throw out lines of reference to US political concerns, its themes are universal. An invigorating feminist battle song soaked in blood, sweat, teen spirit and tears, director Jessica Arthur has given Sydney a must-see revival.
Here’s to hoping for a national tour to come.