When you hear the summary for Wolf Play, it sounds like the kind of work that’s out to completely devastate you: It’s about the very real-life phenomenon of adopted children being abandoned by their adoptive family. But the most surprising part of Wolf Play by Hansol Jung, currently running Off-Broadway, is just how light it is, and how funny. And it’s mostly owed to its central character, a six-year-old boy named Jeenu. But Jeenu is not played by a real child. He’s a puppet, with no hair, mouth, or clothing (aside from a pair of blue sneakers). He is made of wood and cardboard, held together with bungee cords, with black dots for eyes.
As director Dustin Wills put it, the puppet was a way to offer the audience a kind of emotional relief. “I don't want to watch trauma porn,” he says frankly. To him, the play, while it is about an event that is unbearably sad, it is also about, “the spirit of imagination and how we use that to understand and cope with our traumas. The story is, in one respect, about adoption. But I think, even more so, it is a story about making a story.” And it’s a play about how make-believe and storytelling can be a tool of perseverance.
Wolf Play premiered to acclaim last year Off-Broadway at Soho Rep, and it’s been given an encore run at the much-bigger MCC Theater (in collaboration with Ma-Yi Theater Company). And it’s been a hit so far. Even before the show opened, it was already extended until March 19. Wolf Play is about a gay couple who adopt a Korean boy after he is abandoned by his first adoptive parents—they put him up on a Yahoo! message board, which is unfortunately true to life. And the boy, Jeenu, thinks that he is a wolf. So with the theme of adoption, there is also the poignant theme of chosen family, and of finding your pack.
“The things that it hits for me, as someone who became a queer mother in 2022, is…thinking about the themes about what makes a family and what it is to be a parent,” says puppet designer Amanda Villalobos, who has been with the play since 2019. She found Wolf Play edifying, because portrayals of parenthood tend to be so heteronormative, which makes queer parents feel alone in their struggles. “We don't have a lot of that representation of parents in part of the queer community,” she says, “It's exciting that this play is exploring those things.”
When Villalobos and Wills first started working on Wolf Play with Jung, the playwright had already made it clear that she wanted the character of Jeenu to be played by a puppet. Wills admitted initially, he was uncertain about why the character was a puppet instead of a real child. But in seeing how the puppet functioned in rehearsals, he realized that the puppet was the key to bringing a sense of imagination and playfulness to the work. The puppet demanded the audience use their imagination. So, they may see actors putting on a play with an adult actor operating a puppet and pretending to be a child—but their collective imagination helps bring Jeenu to life.
“What's happening, weirdly, is the distance and the dissonance between what we're seeing and what is happening actually brings us closer [to the story]—by virtue of our willing it to be true,” Wills explains. “That’s the power of our imagination as an audience, the power of a collective body of people making meaning out of something. It’s an act of bringing together.”
The design of Jeenu actually came together fairly quickly. He is made out of cardboard, with wooden dowels for arms and legs, and his joints are created using bungee cords. He has shiny black beads for eyes. And he has magnets on his feet so that puppeteer Mitchell Winter (who also voices Jeenu and plays the narrator of the show) can physically move him. The two of them connect together with a neat click, as Winters’ sneakers hook onto Jeenu’s shoes, and they become one being. Jeenu also has magnets on his hands, enabling him to grab things, such as a spoon to eat cereal—an effect that led to chuckles and exclamations of “aww” at a recent performance of Wolf Play.
For Villalobos, she actually didn’t plan on making Jeenu so barebones. In fact, the Jeenu in the show was originally supposed to just be a mock-up, until she finished the final, more realistic-looking version.
“When I start working on a project, I make a rehearsal version of the puppet. And so that's really an accumulation of items in my studio that I put together to make a very crude version,” explains Villalobos. “I remember bringing it to the meet and greet [with the cast]. And everybody's energy shifted when this little puppet was part of the circle of the meeting.”
Villalobos actually made a version of Jeenu that had “fleshed out arms, fully realized joints and more of a skin-like feeling, and hair,” but it never felt quite right and it looked a little “uncanny valley,” she recalls: “We always circled back to what was originally inspiring in that room, which was the simplicity of gathering these elements and putting them together—and letting an arm sway just be two dowel rods and a bungee cord.”
That simple design for Jeenu then informed the look of the play itself. When you come into the theatre, it looks like a gigantic attic, filled with knick-knacks and wooden toys everywhere. And nothing is meant to look realistic. Even the cereal that Jeenu “eats” is made of cotton pom poms and cardboard squares. That sense of play is why Jeenu believes he’s a wolf. Yes, it’s one part trauma-coping, but it’s also because he’s a child. The “play” in the show’s title isn’t talking about the genre of theatre. It’s about the wondrous act of creation.
“It’s the way children play, with what is around,” says Wills. “And then they play very seriously. And their seriousness, the bloody-minded rigor they have with play, is, I think, also at the core of the show.”
It is that kind of play that allows the show’s characters to move past the injustice of their circumstances, whether it is Jeenu’s abandonment or the discrimination his parents, Ash (Esco Jouléy) and Robin (Nicole Villamil), face as queer people in the world. Wolf Play is complex, in that it doesn’t give easy answers for how to overcome, for example, the real-life laws that keep gay parents from adopting children. Or the sad reality that adopted children being traumatized by their adoptive parents is unfortunately common. How to overcome that? Well, it’s a collective effort, says Wills. The play ends with a mother cradling her child.
“You can't do it alone. You have to do it with the community, with a found family,” he says. Just like how in the play, it takes a village to put it on. In real life, says Wills, “it needs to be a collective effort.”