“What if I said I am not what you think you see,” says Mitchell Winter, an actor, narrator, and puppeteer who takes on the persona of both a six-year-old adopted boy and a lone wolf (or rather a boy who thinks of himself as a wolf) in Hansol Jung’s take-no-prisoners parenting drama “Wolf Play,” which was produced Off-Broadway last year by Soho Rep and Ma-Yi Theater Company and is now receiving an encore run at MCC Theater in midtown.
The play was inspired by a 2013 Reuters investigation of an underground online “child exchange” in which parents who had adopted children from overseas and no longer wanted the children transfer custody of the children to replacement caretakers using ads on Internet message boards, without any governmental supervision.
It begins with Peter (Christopher Bannow, weighed-down and guilt-ridden), the overwhelmed father of an adopted six-year-old Korean boy, dropping off his son in another state to a new set of parents, including Robin (Nicole Villamil, nervous and worked up), who is eager to be a mother, and Ash (Esco Jouléy, tough and direct), a non-binary aspiring boxer who finds the exchange to be extremely shady and proceeds to punch out Peter. Also on hand is Robin’s brother Ryan (Brian Quijada), who is also Ash’s professional trainer.
Over time, the troubled but precocious child (who is named Jeenu but referred to as the “Wolf” in the script) forms an unlikely emotional bond with Ash, which leaves both Robin and Ryan feeling sidelined and Ash feeling shaken up and vulnerable. Meanwhile, Peter begins to regret his actions (apparently taken at the behest of his unseen wife) and takes legal action to try to regain custody.
Similar to the recent drama “Slave Play,” the title “Wolf Play” refers to how the child is “playing” the role of a wolf – or is the wolf playing a child? Throughout, Winter (pumped-up, prowling and mysterious) operates a life-size puppet (which stands in for Jeenu and sort of resembles Pinocchio), narrates and comments to the audience even growls.
Staged along a runway-like stage, with the audience seated along opposite sides, Dustin Wills’ expressly theatrical and shape-shifting production conjures a world through the boy’s point of view, with overlapping activities and conversations, set pieces flying up on down via pulleys and sandbags, cereal boxes full of confetti, shadow play, live sound effects and even a boxing ring.
It is an intense, gripping, and often disturbing drama that questions the nature of reality and the purpose of theater (at one point, Winter challenges us to walk out of the show before the storytelling turns sour), in addition to themes of family, sacrifice, emotional connection, masculinity, homophobia, violence, and survival.
Catch “Wolf Play” at MCC Theater, 511 W. 52nd Street, now through March 19. More info at mcctheater.org.