Shotgun Players opened “Wolf Play” this week, an engrossing, suspenseful drama about sordid adoption practices, kinship and love. Korean playwright Hansol Jung wrote the play because she was so troubled by the current practice of “rehoming” unwanted adopted children on the internet.
An actor called Wolf (Mikee Loria) appears at the beginning of the play, howling, teasing the audience and posing the question, “What if I said I am not what you think you see?” The question haunts the show to the very last word.
Wolf then introduces the child, Jeenu, who has been adopted, abandoned and readopted by Ash and Robin, who found him in a Yahoo chatroom. Jeenu is a puppet; Wolf is his handler.
We know from the start that Jeenu has been victimized by the system. He feels more strongly connected to wolves than people because of the way he has been treated. “Wolves know how to fight, to survive. Wolves suck at being alone.”
Loria is fierce and powerful as the Wolf and his handling of Jeenu is extraordinary. The boy’s first adoptive father Peter (Sam Bertken) hands him over to Ash and Robin, a queer couple who accept him on different levels: Robin (Laura Domingo) simply wants to be a mother; Ash (Gabby Momah) is an aspiring boxer who rejects Jeenu initially because he dislikes the way the adoption came about. Ryan (Caleb Cabrera), Robin’s brother and Ash’s manager, simply doesn’t want him around.
So there is friction, but also a large measure of love in Jeenu’s new home. Robin takes him to yoga (“wolves HATE yoga!”) and pampers him, but Jeenu is happiest being at ringside with Ash. They take morning runs together and share boxes of cereals with peculiar names. Jeenu’s first words are spoken to Ash, confirming that he too is a wolf.
Pete returns and sues for custody; he doesn’t approve of a fatherless household and wants Jeenu back. There is nothing more than a power-of-attorney contract confirming the exchange: will the second adoption hold?
Celeste Martore’s crafty stage design works well: a somewhat chaotic living room filled with blue balloons turns into a boxing ring for Ash’s first professional fight and for the battle of custody. Elizabeth Carter’s staging is spare and engaging.
“Wolf Play” loses its way in plot complications at times and needs trimming, but the strong cast led by Loria and his deft creation of Jeenu make up for small lapses, and Jung’s often nutty sense of humor abides.
“Wolf Play,” presented by Shotgun Players, continues at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, through Oct. 1. Tickets are $26-$46, with various discounts available. Call (510) 841-6500, ext. 303, or see shotgunplayers.org.