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Allow me to introduce you to WOLFCRUSH (a queer werewolf play). On the Rocks, the boundary-pushing theater collective fronted by playwright Haygen-Brice Walker and director Elaina Di Monaco, concluded its Dead Teenager Trilogy at last year’s Fringe. How, exactly, do you follow up a show called The Groom’s a Fag; The Bride’s a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and The Maid of Honor’s (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet?
With werewolves, bondage, slaughtered farm animals, and a metric ton of simulated sex.
Performed in a small, sweltering anteroom inside the alternative gallery space Vox Populi, Walker and Di Monaco’s latest collaboration contains all the bacchanalian energy of their previous works, while hinting at more ambitious and intellectually grounded things to come. It doesn’t hit the bullseye all the time, but I defy anyone to find a more Fringeworthy venture.
On the hunt
Walker draws on his Southern upbringing to create the fictional White Coon County, Virginia, where girls are girls, men are men, and transgression isn’t tolerated. Kyle Delaney (Campbell O’Hare), cheerleader and class vice president at White Coon County High, represents the ne plus ultra of suburban conformity, along with her quarterback boyfriend, Huck (Joshua McLucas).
The arrival of Junyce (Sydney Banks), a mysterious teenage lesbian, throws the entire high-school ecosystem into chaos, a pandemonium that eventually wreaks havoc on the town itself. Livestock goes missing — and so does big man on campus Billy Wilkerson. Perhaps more distressing: Kyle and Huck find their seemingly perfect union cracking under the weight of surging same-sex urges.
And that’s all in the first 20 minutes. Things get wilder from there, as Walker stitches together samples from multiple genres into his rollicking, highly discursive quilt of a play. Echoes of teen slasher flicks, thick-as-gravy Southern Gothic pulp novels, and softcore porn vie for pride of place, but WOLFCRUSH reassures its audience and itself that there’s plenty of crazy to go around.
Julia Montante’s woodland scenic design captures the holler’s repressive ethos as well as what lurks beneath the surface, with help from Alyssandra Docherty’s atmospheric lighting. Di Monaco’s energetic direction thankfully doesn’t sacrifice character development; any fear that the conflicted coeds are merely types gets dispelled quickly.
The pack is back
WOLFCRUSH (a queer werewolf play) is at its best when Walker uses the metaphor of transformation to explore the divide between the inner self and its outward presentation, a hallmark of good horror. Within the genre, characters often cannot shed their repressive skins without becoming something new and otherworldly, which gives them permission to flout expectation and respectability.
As Kyle finds herself drawn to Junyce, and Huck to his soft-spoken study partner Beecher (José Raúl Mangual, endearing and scary all at once), the sense of self-discovery through transformation grows. Kevan Sullivan’s movement direction embodies this rising atmosphere of actualization.
O’Hare, Banks, and McLucas, all company stalwarts, communicate the duality of their characters with practiced ease. I particularly like how Banks strikes a delicate balance between Junyce’s hard-won self-assurance and the sneaking sweetness that infuses her building attraction to Kyle.
Jenna Kuerzi strikes comedic gold playing a series of stereotypically ineffectual town leaders — a Trumpian mayor, right down to the overlong red tie; a brash high-school principal who may or may not have killed his wife; a detective who harbors an unhealthy obsession with Mariska Hargitay.
At two-and-a-half hours, the play could easily stand some trimming — particularly in the middle of Act I, where the energy flags between its high-octane opening moments and pre-intermission revelations. And although the prevailing mood is lewd and lascivious in the best possible way, there are moments of transformation that come across as surprisingly sex-negative. I doubt that’s intended, but it’s there.
On the whole, though, WOLFCRUSH (a queer werewolf play) fits with the singular vision On the Rocks has unleashed across the last four Fringes. I can’t wait to see what these talented artists do next.
What, When, Where
WOLFCRUSH (a queer werewolf play). By Haygen-Brice Walker, Elaina Di Monaco directed. On the Rocks. Through September 22, 2018, at Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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