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‘Wolves’ cast gets Lab summer intensive camp grade of A-Plus

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Cheerleading, dance, gymnastics, softball, volleyball and soccer. Each of these high school and intramural activities has their own group dynamic. And this is true of the Wolves, an undefeated indoor soccer team that is running roughshod over the other teams in their suburban soccer league. And if the team’s captain (#25, the girl in purple, Emmie Spiller) has anything to say about it, it’s going to stay that way!

The Wolves is the debut creative product of playwright Sarah DeLappe. It is a fascinating, almost voyeuristic, study of the struggles experienced by nine female teens to fit in on the one hand yet retain their own special, quirky individual egos and self-identities on the other. While DeLappe doesn’t claim that her characters stand as metaphors for teenage girls throughout the country, it is clear that this same tension exists in other team and group activities in and out of high schools from Florida to Oregon and Maine to Southern California. It’s the challenge – and the bane – of life as an adolescent that’s been true for time immemorial and that will undoubtedly mark this coming-of-age period for generations to come.

While this dynamic plays out in so many locales around the world, the outcome will be different in each instance because it depends on the physical, mental and emotional make-up of the participants of each squad and team. It is here where DeLappe excels, and why The Wolves was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017. Each of the players on the Wolves is a fully-evolving young woman, replete with her own thoughts, desires, fears and trepidations. Each competitor is the unique and irreproducible product of the elan and personality proclivities with which she came into the world and the formative experiences she heretofore enjoyed or weathered at the hands of her parents, siblings, playmates and classmates. In a word, DeLappe makes them real – like your daughters and granddaughters and the friends they invite over at holidays and for barbeques, pool parties, sleepovers and birthdays.

They’re raw, uncensored and unabashedly genuine. They say and do things that warrant push back, even opprobrium, from the other eight girls, and then turn right around and do something that’s so endearing you want to jump out of your seat and give them a hug.

Throughout the play, DeLappe showcases her affinity for dialogue. It’s spot-on authentic, right down to the myriad “likes” and “ums” she writes into her script. Yet, DeLappe – aided by Director Madelaine Wright – avoids the cliché’s attributed by other writers to teenage coeds, like Valley Girl affectations and mean girl lingo and diction. These girls have their own personalities. They’re not caricatures of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or even Katy Perry.

It is also interesting that while adults are a constant topic of conversation among the girls, there’s only one appearance by a parent on stage. This honor goes to Heather McLemore Johnson, who evokes the play’s deepest and most cathartic emotional response not only for the audience, but among the Wolves’ teammates.

By this point in the play, the Wolves are a tight, cohesive unit, which parallels the dynamic that actually played out behind the scenes by the actors who portray ##00 (Geovanna Berguin (in orange)), 02 (Brianna Guido (in white)), 07 (Tatum Bates (in red)), 08 (Eren Sisk (in pink)), 11 (Aileen Diaz (in blue)), 13 (Lilli Orr (in green)), 14 (Madalyn Brown (black)), 25 (Emmie Spiller (in purple)) and 46 (Aaliyah Jackson(in yellow)).

“What’s really impressive about this group of girls is that there was significantly less drama than you’d think there would be – whether because they go through a catharsis during the rehearsal process or because they listened to one another,” observes Director Madelaine Hayes.

Like the girls on the Wolves, the cast members are highly individualistic young women with competing hopes, desires and a panoply of emotions and motivations. Something of a theatrical prodigy, Eren Sisk has already established a deserved reputation as a gifted character actor who plays the ingénue with delightful believability. Emmie Spiller (team captain and #25), Brianna Guido (#2) and Tatum Bates (#7) are, like Sisk, Lab Theater summer intensive camp alum, having performed in last summer’s Evil Dead: The Musical. And like Eren, Emmie, Brianna and Tatum, Madalyn Brown and Aaliyah Jackson have theatrical aspirations. (Aaliyah has been featured most recently in the Home of the Great Pecan at Canterbury School as well as Selfie with Creative Theatre Workshop.) But Geovanna Berguin has her sights set on medicine, while Aileen Diaza intends to go into art conservation.

In spite of their disparate goals and theatrical experience, the troupe bonded in a way and to a degree that Hayes found both surprising and gratifying. Of course, she employed a number of imaginative team-building exercises to facilitate her campers’ off-stage camaraderie.

“Scene 5 depicts one of the girls, face down on the field on her hands and knees. [She then screams, gets up, and throws soccer balls right and left in a fit of rage.]. I had everyone in the cast do that scene and then talk about how they felt about it. What I wanted to foster was that watching someone else perform, even though it’s not your part, can help you become a better actor. They learned a lot from each other and, without me having to ask, they applied it to their own acting. That’s really incredible to see.”

DeLappe’s script helped bring that result about, as well. Not only did DeLappe construct characters and dialogue that are easy for teenage girls to identify with and emulate, her script requires them to speak at the same time, often over one another – the way that animated teens customarily do when they find themselves in a group setting.

But that meant that the 130-page script (120 pages is average) was more than a little unconventional. It’s actually presented in columns of overlapping dialogue that would be hard for even the most experienced thespian to break down and digest, never mind teens participating in a summer intensive camp. In fact, for one-third of the cast, The Wolves is their very first theatrical production.

“So they had to learn how to read a script and then give and take focus and learn which words are important to say and which are just important as noise,” Maddy points out. “It’s not easy to dissect any script, but here they have to do that and learn how to interpret the script in a way which makes sense for the audience, which is no easy feat for a bunch of high schoolers.”

It forced them to lean on one another, not only to learn their lines, but figure out how to time their deliveries. And compounding that equation, hardly any of them ever leave the stage.

“There’s no respite!” Maddy exclaims. “Even when they don’t have lines, they’re still there and they still have to be connected to the action taking place elsewhere on the stage. These are all skills that take a long time to master. We had just three weeks. But they really rose to the challenge.”

Because Geovanna, Brianna, Tatum, Eren, Aileen, Lilli, Madalyn, Emmie and Aaliyah were so good throughout camp and rehearsals at interacting with each other, they developed a profound chemistry and palpable team spirit that shows through their performances on stage. While their individual performances are uniformly excellent, the aggregation is what gives this production its overall satisfying quality.

“Their emphasis was on creating the best show rather than the best individual performance or being the best girl in the cast,” Hayes acknowledges.

By that standard, Hayes and her coterie of actors all receive a summer intensive camp grade of A+.

“It’s something that should be celebrated,” Hayes remarks.

Go to one of the remaining performances. You’ll wholeheartedly agree.

July 13, 2019.

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