The pandemic has obliged theaters to be unusually inventive — and audiences unusually adaptable — with outdoor and virtual productions, plays by mail, a drama created in a rural quarantine bubble (the Wilma Theater’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), and, now, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s first experiment with Zoom.
Other Zoom shows, such as Richard Nelson’s Apple Family pandemic plays, have been crafted specifically for this novel medium and address the issues of the day. PTC’s “pay what you can” version of The Wolves (viewable through Dec. 20) is something else entirely: a piece that debuted Off-Broadway in 2016 — and that has since been reimagined in a digital format.
Intended as PTC’s final production of the 2019-20 season, the show was delayed when the March lockdown closed Philadelphia theaters. Now, The Wolves is back, with ferocity. Sarah DeLappe’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist is a one-act ensemble piece (less than 85 minutes long) about a nine-member high school girls’ indoor soccer team, united by warrior athlete friendships and riven by personal rivalries.
Like Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, produced by the Wilma in 2019, it revels in salty language and teenage angst. It also touches on the thin membrane between insiders and outsiders, and the suddenness with which tragedy can upend quotidian lives.
Zoom creates some hurdles, as well as opportunities, for director Nell Bang-Jensen. In a more typical production, the play would be propelled, and its relationships clarified, by the blocking, the minuet of convergences and retreats.
Here, instead, we see each character only in her little Zoom square, separate from the others, against an identical backdrop of AstroTurf and distant stands. The effect emphasizes the team members’ isolation. It suggests that any real sense of community — genuine team spirit — will be hard-won.
The format also invites some confusion. Bang-Jensen, artistic director of Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, directs the (sometimes deliberately overlapping) conversations at a rapid clip. In an actual Zoom call, the “speaker view” feature enlarges the speaker’s image. Without that option, focus is more difficult, and it can take a moment to discern which character in The Wolves (the name of the team, of course) is talking.
Bang-Jensen and her high-energy ensemble excel at sketching character. The girls, costumed by Maiko Matsushima in jerseys and warm-up gear, are known by their numbers, unfortunately not always visible. The standouts include Hanna Gaffney as #7, the cool girl with a sharp tongue and an offstage boyfriend, and Emma Lenderman as #46, the new girl, an inexplicably fine soccer player who (equally inexplicably) lives in a yurt.
The action moves chronologically, in scenes defined by weekly games that are propelling the team toward nationals. Conversational topics range from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge to the possibility of an unintended pregnancy — disasters global and individual. They are punctuated by images of the girls stretching or exercising, and even (in one clever bit of “staging”) sharing orange slices.
In the end, The Wolves requires a high tolerance for the patois and sensibilities of teenage girls, as well as the quirks of Zoom. In the throes of my personal pandemic fatigue, that was difficult to muster — but in this hard season PTC deserves kudos for the creativity and polish of its effort.