Few feelings are more unsettling than falling victim to a false sense of security. That is why many take comfort in fairy tales: No matter what stylistic liberties are taken, there is some solace in knowing that when the climax is reached, the main characters will live happily ever after.
Wolves, a play written by Steve Yockey and directed by Michael Matthews, provides no such certainty. The play draws the audience into a story that they believe themselves to be familiar with — “Little Red Riding Hood” — but then throws viewers to the wolves, pun intended.
As any artistic work should do, Wolves successfully strives for originality. Yockey reimagines the forest as a big city, makes Little Red two young gay men and the wolf a misunderstood strong-silent type. Little Red is personified by Ben (Nathan Mohebbi) and Jack (Matt Magnusson), two 20-somethings new to the city who used to date but have since broken up. Financial difficulties force Jack to remain living with Ben in an apartment that quickly becomes crowded with sexual and emotional tension.
Aside from providing a contemporary twist that appeals to the West Hollywood venue’s demographic, switching the naive main character from a little girl to young gay men is not just daring but meaningful, as it shows that neither children nor grown men are safe from betrayals of trust.
The show makes clear that this hardship is an unavoidable experience that can occur at any time, without warning, even with those we trust the most. The story of Little Red Riding Hood tempts the horrible fear that those we think we know best are capable of hurting us the most. Despite knowing about Ben’s unstable mental state, Jack continues living with Ben because he believes he knows Ben inside and out — eerily similar to the way Little Red nearly dies at the hands of a wolf because she felt safe in her “grandma’s” presence.
Mohebbi, as Ben, superbly portrays the acute anguish that belies seeing an ex-partner return to the dating scene. Though Jack is charming enough, the character doesn’t quite inspire sympathy, especially when he disregards Ben’s fragility and brings home Wolf (Andrew Crabtree), a man whom Jack picks up at the local bar and hopes can satisfy the emptiness left in him by Ben. Of course, the expectations are not quite met.
Meanwhile, Ben’s paranoia reaches an all-time high. Mohebbi conveys Ben’s lack of control through soliloquies that are welcome insights into his damaged psyche rather than distractions. The music that introduces these solo speeches, however, along with the narrator’s asides to Ben, is far too ominous for its own good. Sound cues are useful tools to grab an audience’s attention, but they should not take away from the action itself.
The play’s omniscient redheaded narrator, played by Katherine Skelton, serves to further aggravate Ben’s anxiety. Her advice is initially only heard by the audience and Ben, almost as if she is an extension of the separation anxiety Ben suffers from. At first, the narrator is irritating with her lilting, overly wry tone. Once her purpose in the play becomes clearer, however, her comedic relief and commentary become necessary to balance out the heavy interactions among the men.
There seems to be a connection between the narrator and the fairy-tale figure of Little Red’s mother, a woman who sends her daughter out into the world, completely aware that it is a place filled with danger. Still, Yockey could have written the narrator in a way that would have been tied into the plot more creatively rather than just using her as an embodiment of the audience’s expectation of what the fairy tale is meant to be. Nonetheless, her presence serves as a useful connection between the audience and the players.
Another criticism is that, at certain points, the dialogue forces itself to be witty. Conversations occasionally felt contrived and, sometimes, Ben and Jack’s arguments are hard to follow because lines are messily layered in an attempt to recreate an actual argument. Whether this is an in-the-moment delivery choice on the actors’ part or a directional choice is unclear, but the arguments could have been portrayed with more precision while maintaining the genuine feel of the conversation.
The same problem occurs with Crabtree’s Wolf; he slowly becomes more bestial as the story progresses, but during the play’s climax, his growling is over-the-top. Though making wolfish sounds is no easy feat, Crabtree’s descent into canine fervor could be a little more terrifying rather than exaggerated.
Though some of the play’s symbolism becomes convoluted during the messy conclusion, Yockey and Matthews have ultimately constructed a play that satisfies the audience on a primal level. There’s sex, deception and plenty of oozing blood, and once the final blows are dealt and the red lights dim, the audience is left in silent awe.
And as far as relationships are concerned, Wolves is a reminder that people seek from others the stability they can’t find on their own. Jack wants Wolf to be someone he isn’t while Ben clings to the connection he once shared with Jack, who, of course, desperately seeks refuge from Ben’s needy grasp. The question of love versus need is prevalent and fits perfectly with the original Little Red Riding Hood theme of finding one’s inner strength.
The play shows that, no matter how difficult the situation, the strength to realize who you love and who you need is always there — you just have to listen to the right voice of reason. Even if that voice is coming from inside your head.
Wolves runs until May 5 at Celebration Theatre. Tickets are $30.