The Play, The Game: Sports on Stage

Spend enough time on the field and you’ll come away with blood. But the blood that opens Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves isn’t skinned knees or thousands of burst blood vessels congealing into a purple bruise—it’s menstruation in all its coagulated glory. The Wolves’ bloodthirst doesn’t manifest itself in a jealousy-fueled competition. Instead, it finds form in the team’s frantic whispers about a sheltered teammate who chooses pads over tampons and jokes about pregnancy that quickly become unchecked abortion rumors. But make no mistake—the competition is real, and when these young women focus on the stratagems of winning, you won’t want to be in their sights. These girls are driven. They’re sixteen and it shows.

When sports are staged, actors’ bodies carry the many stories of their genders, races, classes, and physical prowess; athleticism transforms into a choreography that carries cultural stories as well as personal ones. Studio’s audiences have seen this kinetic energy before. As the Wolves run through their pre-game warm-ups, audience members may recall Roy Williams’s drama Sucker Punch, produced at Studio in 2011. This intimate portrayal of two Black British middleweight boxers navigating the space between friendship and rivalry carry the quick-trigger depth and danger that can only form over a lifetime. Troy and Leon have it out in the ring—touching gloves before aiming to destroy each other. But as with The Wolves, the play takes this controlled combat to lean into questions of adolescence—in this case an adolescence marked by realities of racism, poverty, and xenophobia (both boxers are first-generation Afro-Caribbean teens). Nor is the play all testosterone and aggression. In a beautifully quiet moment, Leon and his unreliable father perform the ritual of wrapping his hands in athletic tape before a boxing workout. It’s rare moment—father and son hand in hand.

If The Wolves is an exploration of the moment before the whistle blows, Tom Wells’s romantic comedy Jumpers for Goalposts (Studio, 2015) is a post-game cooldown. We encounter the Wolves every Saturday before their indoor soccer game, the audience oblivious to the minutiae of their Sunday through Friday lives. In Jumpers for Goalposts, the audience is thrown into post-game endorphins and, when it comes to team captain Viv, rage. They’re also a world away from the discipline and excellence of the Wolves; called “Barely Athletic”, this team plays in an amateur pub league organized by gay bars of Hull, England. At first blush, we’re witnessing archetypes interact after a loss—the raging team captain, the burly goofball, the love-struck introvert, the mourning widow. Wells reveals individuals who lead beautifully rich lives between matches, and develop (to greater and lesser degrees) the vulnerability required to share those lives with each other. On game days, they share a shorthand based in love and protection. They’re family. And at the heart of it, so are the Wolves.

The women of The Wolves flood the stage with teenage bodies in jerseys, never losing sight of the stakes on the line, even though the audience never sees them play. It’s a strategy with an echo in Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, which premiered at Studio in 2013 in a production that put the audience at the edge of the Olympic-sized swimming pool of this champion athlete’s world, complete with voices echoing off wall-to-wall tile and chlorine so strong you can almost taste it.

But like the absent soccer field in The Wolves, this story of American exceptionalism is told without water. Instead, we’re met with the visual of Ray’s titular red Speedo, a constant reminder that he is the best at what he does. In the opening moments of the play, this exceptional athlete munches on baby carrots as his brother monologues “A man. This man—Here is a man who is nothing short of amazing.” And while Ray, who has dedicated his entire life to swimming, may well be amazing, this emphasis on his masculinity and the singular nature of his sport contrasts with the army of athletes who make up The Wolves. Ray has proven that he’ll do anything to win, but The Wolves have each other, their battle cry, and the magic and resilience of teenage girls. They’re not just here to win. They’re out for blood.

— Danielle Mohlman