Adam Rapp goes immersive and abstract in his scary, loamy new play Wolf in the River, now at The Flea Theater through May 2. Magnificently acted, beautifully written, and claustrophobically staged in the round, with a pile of dirt in the center and the cast running and slinking in circles behind the audience, it’s a jolt of dark energy.
“Immersive,” the word and concept, may be overused in downtown theater today – how often do I want to be pitched into the action, after all? I’m in the audience – but Wolf in the River grabs spectators in an exceptionally visceral and creepy way, without messy performance-art tricks. A surreal dive into the river of id, it tells, or rather fractalizes, the story of a 16-year-old girl’s disappearance from her tarpaper home somewhere in America’s mossy southern crotch.
Dominated and brutalized by Monty (Xanthe Paige), a charismatic cult leader who literally collects the blood of her adepts, Tana (Kate Thulin) endeavors to run away to live with Debo (Maki Borden), a sweet-natured young man she met two years earlier. Meanwhile another young man, Pin (Mike Swift), is also trying to escape Monty’s thrall, and Tana’s older brother Dothan (William Apps) is dealing with the demons that followed him home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan – an experience he hasn’t been able to escape.
Escape seems to be the theme. Literal escape stands in, as it can in dreams, for rising above our wolfish nature. Embodying that nature is a nameless narrator/stage manager/wolf (Jack Ellis) with a preacher’s delivery and a devil’s carnivorous charisma.
Animal terror also lurks in the margins, even during the adorable scenes between Tana and Debo, the only scenes that could have come from a realistic play. With only two rows of seats, the murkily-clad backwoods characters who crouch and circle beside and behind us create a nearly constant frisson of anxiety. The scuffed-up pile of real dirt sends its earthy odor into our nostrils, waking our animal instincts still further.
Even with all that, and even with Tana’s fate ending up literally in an audience member’s hands, the show’s “immersiveness” doesn’t feel awkward or disconcerting. The feeling is of immersion not in a production but in a world – a world that requires both a fight choreographer and an aerial consultant.
Rapp’s text and direction draw out the best from the talented cast. I can’t remember the last time I felt as invested in a fictional stage character as I did in Tana. Paige’s Monty commands attention every moment she’s on stage. So does Ellis’s wolf/man. Debo is a sunny breeze lightening the atmosphere. Balancing him, Dothan is a burly, silent, ineffable presence until, suddenly, he breaks into a rant that shifts the play’s center of gravity.
Pop music and folk-style songs inject still more life into this hour-and-three-quarter happening, which sustains its power from the moment the wolf/man mounts the dirt pile to the moment we learn whether Tana succeeds in escaping. Half the time I wasn’t sure what was real and what was fantasy or dream. Yet the story held me from start to finish. That’s Wolf in the River‘s greatest accomplishment.