Revealing Adoption’s Invisible Strings in “Wolf Play”

By Caroline Cao
February 20, 2023

Playwright Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play reminded me of a somewhat recent news headline. While watching the current MCC Theater rendition (up through March 19th), not far from my mind was Huxley, a Chinese infant adopted by a white YouTuber influencer couple in 2017. By 2020, the couple fell under scrutiny when Huxley suddenly stopped appearing in their videos; it was later revealed that the couple had re-homed Huxley when they found themselves unequipped for his developmental needs as a child with level 3 autism and sensory processing disorder.

At the center of Jung’s play is a six-year-old Korean-born adoptee named Jeenu, who announces himself to the audience as “a wolf.” Jeenu is played by a puppet, operated by a voracious Mitchell Winter who translates the child’s wolf-like logic and observations to the audience. A wooden boy with a cardboard torso, Amanda Villalobos’s design for Jeenu coincidentally resembles Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s Pinocchio. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Villalobos also thought, “a pinch of Caillou.”

Jeenu is a rambunctious entity. He’s also an object. He’s also flesh and blood, a soul embodied by Winter. But to Jeenu first and foremost, he is a wolf trying to survive in his new habitat.

Jeenu’s life is radically altered when his adoptive parents in Arizona want to make room for their biological newborn and put Jeenu up for re-homing via a Yahoo message board. Unable to resist the call for a child, a queer woman in San Francisco named Robin (Nicole Villamil) eagerly agrees, much to the chagrin of her spouse Ash (a take-no-prisoners Esco Jouléy).

A cutthroat Southpaw boxer on the brink of a pro debut, Ash bristles at the thought of participating in an “auction” for a child. “Everything happened so fast,” is Robin’s sheepish justification of the process. When Jeenu’s adoptive father, Peter (Christopher Bannow), delivers Jeenu into the San Francisco household, it induces a host of conflicts: Jeenu was advertised as younger, Peter is aghast that he unwittingly transferred his charge into the hands of a queer couple (despite all his blabber about needing “diversity,” he wants the kid to have a patriarchal figure), and he failed to divulge Jeenu’s wolfish “aggression” until the last minute.

Needless to say, Jeenu’s family story elicits an ethical and emotional conundrum. Jung’s script crumbles the fourth wall, and director Dustin Wills’s Brechtian staging further eviscerates it in a habitat discombobulated from reality. It’s a space-time continuum, shared by the characters and audience, where the wolf’s opening monologue reminds the audience of the artifice yet allows them to be emotionally reeled in. You-Shin Chen’s scenic design evokes a faded warehouse of appliances on a ship with sails existing among stage lights. This setting predominantly serves as Jeenu’s new home as well. Special ticket-holders closest to the stage are seated in armchairs or rocking chairs, bringing them into the set.

For all its heightening of reality, the pillars of Wolf Play are built on the realities of transracial adoption and the underground online market for foster kids. Jeenu’s handoff is technically beyond any legal intervention. Post-show, the theater’s hallways feature posts from Megan Twohey’s 2013 investigative report “The Child Exchange,” which illuminates the practice of children (often foreign-born) being re-homed through online forums like Yahoo messages boards and Facebook groups (many of these cases end up placing children in the hands of sexual abusers).

Led by Winter’s animated performance, the five-person cast is on the knife’s edge of caricature, yet their obstinacy and follies render them keenly human. A head of micro-aggressions and sniveling rationalizations, Bannow’s Peter is as worthy of empathy as he is quite literally punchable.

Villamil is brimming with maternal bubbliness as Robin, whose self-awareness does not necessarily cleanse her stickler pride. Inhabited by Brian Quijada, Robin’s brother Ryan is a brawling creature of toxic masculinity who inundates his loved ones with “hard truths.”

Jouléy plays Ash with aplomb grit. Despite their ambivalence towards Jeenu’s entry into their life, Ash finds unexpected synchronicity with the wolf. In their first play-fight with Jeenu, Ash is able to perceive the wolf’s humanity — by matching eyes with not the puppet but its human operator, Winter.

In addition to The Immortal Jellyfish Girl, Wolf Play is another example of this theater season reaping the glories of puppetry. In frenzies where adults snatch the puppet to discipline the wolf, the puppeteer can find himself empty-handed to signify a loss of control (a technique not dissimilar from the gag pulled off by puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa in the recent Into the Woods Broadway revival). It’s not quite that Jeenu isn’t loved; what is instead implied is that the adults in Jeenu’s life see him more as an idea rather than human.

Caroline Cao is a writer based in New York City.

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