Puppets get a bad rap. Modern culture relegates them to the roles of toys, antiques, or—most commonly—terrifying murder dolls. But puppetry is one of the earliest forms of performance and, for thousands of years, civilizations all over the world have used it to tell stories and move audiences. So it’s exciting to see South Korean playwright Hansol Jung draw upon this ancient, underappreciated performing art for her new work, Wolf Play. It’s even more exciting to have that play’s world premiere at the Artists Repertory Theatre.
In Wolf Play, a young Korean adoptee is “re-homed” by his adoptive parents after they have a biological baby. To “re-home” an adoptive child means to give them away online—in this play, on Yahoo. And while this may sound like an implausible fictional conceit, second-chance adoptions are 100 percent real and legal in most states.
The boy (Christopher Larkin) is a wolf, metaphorically, and a puppet, literally. Jung’s script breaks the barrier between puppeteer and puppet. Larkin moves his Wolf puppet around the stage and uses it to interact with the other actors while giving the audience a separate running commentary. He deftly embodies the wisdom and vulnerability of a perfect, precocious child narrator. This fourth-wall breaking breathes a lyric quality into the show (and also imparts a lot of interesting facts about wolves).
Ultimately, Wolf Play is not about adoption. It’s about family and how we struggle with those we are closest to. It’s also about men—who hunt Wolf as he adapts to his new life—and women—Wolf’s new lesbian parents Ash (Tamera Lyn) and Robin (Ayanna Berkshire)—all with their own ideas about how to raise the boy.
Returning to Jung’s script, I can’t praise it enough. Jung tightly layers scenes over each other (director Dámaso Rodríguez makes it look effortless) and pushes the action forward, while also world-building in the wake. As Wolf Play hits its climax, the foundation snaps into focus, and snares you in a trap you didn’t realize you walked into, even as the cast explains what’s going to happen. The production comes off as a feat of theatrical magic. You find yourself moved by the plight of a small, faceless puppet, just like audiences were thousands of years ago.