“Wolf Play” by Hansol Jung, directed by Alicia Lee ’24 for Upstage, is described on the ticket listing as being about a Korean boy whose adoptive American father carts him off to a new couple.
(CW: discussion and mention of international and interracial adoption and allusions to racism, transphobia and homophobia.)
When the couple he left his kid to is revealed to be lesbian, the father becomes upset and spends the entire play trying to get his kid back, eventually with the help of Ryan, a relation to the couple who doesn’t like the “new Korean boy, who is a bit weird.” While this is all true, the director’s note highlights the nuances — that this is a story about imperialism, settler-colonial violence and the realities of interracial adoption and family.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I would get to experience “Wolf Play.” I forgot to get tickets and figured I would need to wait for a review, probably from a friend with a better memory than mine. Then, when I walked a friend to the show, I stumbled upon the only time that hadn’t sold out and was asked if I’d like to see it. Who would say no to a free show? So, we checked in and grabbed our seats only a couple of minutes late. I picked a spot next to a seat with “RESERVED” on it in bold letters. I remember feeling a pang of sadness over that seat where there should be a loved one. This seat is important later on, I promise.
“Wolf Play’s” set was in Alumnae Auditorium rather than the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, which created a more intimate setting because all of us — the cast, the crew, the audience — were on stage. There was a boxing ring in the center, seating on three sides and two more scenes on the fourth. The set, designed by Audrey Benford ’27, was amazing to witness, especially when multiple scenes, including an additional one in between two audience sides, moved at once, forcing the viewer to actively shift between them.
However, given the name of the play, it should be no surprise that Wolf stood out, especially given that this role was the theatre debut for Darcy Kim ’24, who acted immaculately. Their costume (by Maura Whalen ’27) and makeup (by Sancha Gonzalez ’25) immediately set them apart. Jung writes that Wolf is “a mix of the familiar and terribly unexpected” in the character list, which Upstage achieves beautifully. Of course, the fact that the Wolf is the consciousness behind Pete Junior, or Jeenu, who is played by a wooden puppet, offsets this — in a good way!
This dichotomy between Wolf and Jeenu provides a tangible sense of the dissociation and helplessness Wolf experiences throughout the play. We get a bit of playfulness through the improvisation the role allows, with Wolf asking questions, making eye contact and reacting to what characters are saying around puppet-Wolf with emphatic head shakes, all directed at the audience. One particular moment that stuck with me was when they observed the audience, a reversal of watched versus watching, and gave a skillful eyebrow raise toward the whispering people behind me until they quieted, as if Wolf was a teacher asking a student if they had anything to share with the class.
This dynamic is established from the start, when Wolf asks the audience, “What if I said I am not what you think you see?” What if Wolf is not “an actor human,” what if you are the “most important person in [their] space” and “what if you believed [them]?” Alternatively, what if Wolf is “an actor human,” what if you are actually nothing and no one cares and what if your phone goes off and the crew posts about you on Sidechat? What if this cynical series of questions is the truth?
Now, remember that empty seat that I promised was important? Sitting next to it was one of the best decisions I could have made, because it was actually reserved for Wolf or Jeenu or both or neither, depending on the scene. Seeing Wolf hold a puppet — wooden, with a cloth mannequin head — and literally sit on the sidelines, silently observing scenes, added another layer of Jeenu’s helplessness throughout, a forced bystander to their own life.
While Wolf stood out, the rest of the cast supported this role. All five characters amplified each other. Robin (Annika Mathias ’24), half of the lesbian couple and the one who “adopts” Jeenu, has a frantic energy and a naive air that comes from the excitement of having a child without an understanding of its nuances. Ash (Nick Pittagnano ’24), Robin’s nonbinary partner and boxer, acted with deliberate carelessness, but showed palpable tension through subtle movements and looks. To Robin’s dismay, Ash is the character whom Wolf connects with first, which causes strain in their relationship. Their tensed shoulders and deep breathing portray the building pressure.
Ryan (Talulah Juniper ’27), Robin’s brother and Ash’s trainer, embodies the machismo of the “good guy,” who is supportive until things deviate from his idea of social order. His frat-boy energy and Juniper’s acting sell the idea that Ryan believes everything he is doing is right, that he needs to fix the family by getting rid of a child who doesn’t react the way he expects. Peter (Kavya Parameswar ’24), the man who sent Jeenu to Ash and Robin and, presumably, named him “Pete Junior,” has that same sense of justness with a dose of nerves and extra misogyny.
At the end of the play, Ryan and Peter work together to take Robin and Ash to court, arguing that Peter’s Yahoo message board of Jeenu’s un-adoption is reversible as he never transferred custody. This ends with the court deciding that both same-sex parents and Peter are harmful to Jeenu and leave Jeenu in state custody. Part of this scene’s power is how easy it is to wish for Jeenu to stay with Robin and Ash. Yes, the misgendering of Ash by Peter, the misogyny of pullingJeenu away from Ash and Robin because “the kid needs a father figure” and the tender connections Jeenu will now lose with his newest family all suck. However, one also needs to think about the Yahoo chat board, the fact that Jeenu was renamed and the traumas of adoption, especially interracial and international ones. Maybe, upon reflection, the audience members decide they would still prefer Jeenu to stay with Ash and Robin. Or, maybe, such a decision is meaningless. Audience members have the power to think and to reckon with the fact that their answer can never be fully “right.”
“Wolf Play,” gives its audience a chance to contemplate layers of tragedy, to step outside of oneself to see a snapshot of a displaced child’s life. It is a chance to see the truths that, as Wolf says, are wobbly things.