Horror has always been a home for inclusion. Scary stories often feature a diverse cast of characters, and they are the first to approach taboo subjects in a way that removes any stigma. (See: “Dracula’s Daughter,” the romantically progressive 1936 film that brought subtle lesbianism to the big screen, and 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” which gave horror cinema it’s first African-American hero.) “Wolfcrush: A Queer Werewolf Play,” by Haygen-Brice Walker, fits neatly within this tradition.
The play is the latest by theatre troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps. Handled adequately by director Matt Carter, it’s a fun but flawed tale of teenage fears, lust and the secret pains that come out or destroy us from within. All gets set in a world reminiscent of those created by TV’s camp king Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story,” “Pose,” “Scream Queens”). If it weren’t for the pseudo-graphic sex scenes, the play could plausibly work on the CW’s lineup, somewhere between “Riverdale” and “iZombie.”
Teen angst and hormones are in the air when Junyce (Madeline Brien) saunters into the scene. The self-assured high schooler is getting a tour of her new school by preppy student-body vice president Kyle (Lily Nicole). A young woman who wears her secrets mostly on her sleeve, Junyce immediately makes her attraction to Kyle known. It leaves Kyle to question her cookie-cutter world and the way things should be.
On the other side of the story are Huck (Kit Bertram) and Beecher (Daniel Stinson), a pair of somewhat mismatched buddies. Huck is the über-popular high-school quarterback and Kyle’s boyfriend; Beecher, the sweet hanger-on. The two clearly have feelings for one another but are frightened by what those feelings might mean. The story really shines when the characters lean in on their fears. Beecher focuses on possible rejection from Huck so much he blindly follows him to the bitter end. Huck, meanwhile, does all he can to avoid his true self and keep up the façade of being an Alpha. It’s an uncomfortable look at how people become trapped in self-denying hell.
The show tries to balance camp with a strong message, but therein lies a big drawback: It sacrifices nearly its entire story for the message. Plot elements are teased, only to be thrown away for an unearned happy ending. The murder of the student-body president is the event-punching action setting the show into high gear. Yet, the reveal of his murderer is so lazy it seems as if it was forgotten until the words “The End” needed to be written. The play leaves so many plot threads unresolved that when the house lights came up I found myself taken aback it was over.
Also, “Wolfcrush” never sets rules for its werewolf lore. Thus, there are a lot of inconsistencies within the show’s logic. While lore is hardly the point, it still sits there, glaring like an unused Chekhov’s gun. But, let me be clear: None of these issues are the fault of the production itself, rather with the script.
Pineapple-Shaped Lamps controls the pacing of the show, yet “Wolfcrush” never settles into a solid one. The show comprises a bunch of short vignettes—the order of which is dictated by the use of digital slate cards. Few moments are allowed to breathe; some are even cut short by overeager lighting cues. The cast, too, is a mixed bag, with its greatest strength being one of its greatest weaknesses. Lily Nicole is so good in the role of Kyle she ends up leaving her castmates in the dust. Nicole brings to her performance all the energy of Jessie Spano on caffeine pills (she’s so excited, she just can’t hide it, she’s so… scared). She steps onstage with a fully formed character and embraces the world of camp the show is built upon. It’s solid work from a talented actress.
Jessica Gift takes on a multitude of roles, playing every adult in Coon County. She in turn embodies the town’s Southern mayor (her weakest role, mainly due to a few incoherent rambling monologues); the morbid principal who lends a sinister air and solid laughs whenever onstage; and the loud detective from the “big city” of Richmond, VA. The detective is where Gift truly owns the stage. She pinballs with the prowess of Chris Farley and leaves the audience in stitches.
The rest of the cast embody their roles capably, but it takes time for them to warm up. When matched with the ready-to-go Nicole and Gift, the disparity between groups is clear.
Brien plays Junyce’s tough-as-concrete exterior well, but hers quickly becomes a one-note performance. Bertram fairs better when Huck steps up to become the main antagonist. His manipulation of both Kyle and Beecher borders on pure sociopath behavior, all stemming from a seething self-hatred he cannot escape.
Daniel Stinson delivers a solid turn as Beecher, but a lot of his earlier scenes are tarnished by volume issues. Once he releases the role’s inner beast, his confidence shines. His transformation scene looks truly painful, and is enhanced by some good sound effects provided by Ben Henson. The only thing that holds the moment back—and, indeed, holds much of the play back—is the blocking. While some of the play, including sex scenes, are well worked, much comes off as, “You stand there. You stand there. Now, act.”
The set design is fine but spare. Eddie Key has crafted rows of rather eerie looking trees, but the lack of paint lends an unfinished vibe overall. The lighting design by Beau Mumford, however, is outstanding. Mumford washes the stage in a putrid green, which colors the trees. His crowning achievement comes with the interrogation scene when each character is grilled by Gift under an individual spotlight. It’s one of the best moments of the play due to how well the elements mix.
Nothing is more important than stories. They are how we pass down our histories, propagate morals and ideas, and essentially learn how to be decent humans. We can’t properly do that unless we can see ourselves in the story—see the struggles and successes we ourselves have experienced. While not without its flaws, “Wolfcrush” presents a fresh story that will educate many on the “outs” and allow those on the “ins” to not feel alone—to not be the monster of their story but rather the hero.
Wolfcrush: A Queer Werewolf Play
Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m.;
Sept. 8, 3 p.m..
Ruth & Bucky Stein Theatre, Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
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