Review: “Wolf in the River” at the Flea Theater

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic


NEW YORK, NY - “It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.” (Jean-Paul Sartre) “If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf.” (Nikita Khrushchev) 

When is the last time (be honest) you smelled the scent of the heavy moist earthiness of potting soil and peat moss when you entered a theatre? The only stimulation of the senses – other than the auditory and visual ones emanating from the stage – might be the errant warble from a miscreant’s cell phone or the odor of smoke from actors still puffing on real cigarettes. Not so at the Flea as the audience enters to see Adam Rapp’s new “Wolf in the River.” 

 Photo: Hunter Canning

Photo: Hunter Canning

At the play’s opening – even before it opens – a character is in the process of planting, or perhaps burying something in carefully choreographed ritualistic movements. This is an important ritual – certainly as important as those that surround the redeeming individual depicted in the large graphic on the wall of the set. Whatever it is, we are all a part of it. We share its culpability, its horrific faith-base. And we are subject to its rules and are required to show obedience to its leader.

And whatever it is, it is an intentional community – think something like the lost boys in “Lord of the Flies” in a mashup with “The Walking Dead” – whose rituals center around a garden/burial/sacrificial mound, a refrigerator, and a living room straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Eventually “The Man” (Jack Elllis) jumps up from his seat in the audience, takes of his shoes and shirt, and becomes the narrator-ringmaster-travel guide for all that is to come. What follows is the story of how the belongings and bones of a teenage girl ended up buried near the river amidst the detritus of modernity strewn on its surface including the cell phone of the deceased – that phone “the Fall of Man” according to the narrator.

Many of the characters in this “lost community” have parallels in the “real world” of Mr. Rapp’s engaging and immersive play and what happens in the “netherworld” is one of the most powerful and disturbing allegories for what we experience daily as the “normal” world we have created and are too often re-created by. If the Wolf (aka “The Man”), Monty (Xanthe Paige)” and her Lost Choir are the new Folk Heroes of America – and they might be – then it is time for America to examine the “Scarlet A” around its neck and create a new future for its citizenry residing in the ninety-nine percent.

Now to that parallel world, a world of “possibility.” The Wolf introduces the audience to Tana Weed (Kate Thulin) and her brother Dothan (William Apps). “So let’s alight on this day for a minute, shall we? Cuz no matter how bad things get, everyone gets at least one day there where stuff looks downright possible. Objects attain a gilded edge. The sun marbles the skin of the water. The trees look plump and green. Even the fish start to look heroic. (to an audience member) I’m right, ain’t it, neighbor?” 

Tana is a teenage orphan who survives by donating blood and her brother Private First Class Dothan (across the world serving in Afghanistan) is taking the blood of a “majestic, quarter-ton, prolifically-horned steer” he encounters on the outskirts of Kabul. The Wolf’s description of what happens is spellbinding and life changing: “He happened upon a steer in the middle of the desert. Walked up to it and shot it like it was a man, just like a enemy man. Eyes so brown they go forever, which is where the water in Hell is. And this is where you take all the babies after they get laid in the street, you take ‘em to this hellwater and put ‘em in it, you don’t even got to wash ‘em, you just drop ‘em in and wait for the water to rise up over their little faces.”

Tana wants to escape her existence and Dothan wants to escape his PTSD and Mr. Rapp’s allegory brings the audience to the river of the Lost Choir and to the edge of the realization that everyone in the room is culpable for whatever happens to Tana as she tries to escape her endless cycle of poverty and desperation and Dothan attempts to escape his nightmares. “Y’all are the river,” admonishes the Wolf, “And sometimes you’re the wolf. That’s the fun part of the riddle. That’s how come I left a part of me out there with you. Just so y’all can be reminded of that.”

Under Mr. Rapp’s extraordinary direction, the ensemble cast of “The Wolf in the River” brings the audience to a level of awareness and responsibility the theatre too often buries under the veneer of entertainment and the umbilical cord of numbness. Adam Rapp’s “The Wolf in the River” is nothing like you have ever seen before and nothing you are likely ever to see again. Sartre’s sentiments counterpoint the theme of this important play: “It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.”


The Flea’s production features The Bats: William Apps, Maki Borden, Alexandra Curran, Karen Eilbacher, Jack Ellis, Kristin Friedlander, Jack Horton Gilbert, John Paul Harkins, Olivia Jampol, Artem Kreimer, Derek Christopher Murphy, Xanthe Paige, Mike Swift, Kate Thulin, and Casey Wortmann.

The creative team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Masha Tsimring (lighting design), Michael Hili & Hallie Elizabeth Newton (costume design), Brendan Connelly (sound design), Zach Serafin (props design), J. David Brimmer (fight choreography), Sarah East Johnson (aerial consultant), Anne Cecelia Haney (assistant director) Morgan Leigh Beach (stage manager), and Annie Jenkins (assistant stage manager). 

“Wolf in the River” runs through May 2 on the following schedule: Thursday–Saturday and Monday at 7PM, Saturday at 1PM, and Sunday at 3PM during previews. After opening, Saturday matinees only play on select Saturdays. Tickets start at $20 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. The production includes nudity, violence, graphic language, and sexual situations. The Flea Theater is located at 41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal, close to the A/C/E, N/R/Q, 6, J/M/Z and 1 subway lines. Purchase tickets by calling 212-352-3101 or online at Running time is 1 hour and 45-minutes without intermission