KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 13, 2019 – Early in rehearsals for “The Wolves,” director Rachel Walshe gave her nine actors preparing to play 16- and 17-year-old elite soccer players a simple assignment: Fill a backpack.
“What you have in your bag actually says a lot about you,” says Walshe, a lecturer in the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department. “It shows what matters to you, what you need.”
For the actors, it let them figure out what mattered to the characters they would be playing.
Olivia Paluzzi, a senior theater major, plays #2, a sweet, caring teenager, a member of a very devout family and the team’s mediator. She selected a teen Bible, a set of house keys (as the family’s most responsible sibling), and a messy notebook. “There’s just something about religious people I’ve known in my life,” says the Braintree, Mass. resident. “One of my friends back home, she really seems put together, but her homework was always chaotic. It’s kind of this very human thing about people who have a spiritual connection to the world.”
Carleigh Boyle, a first-year theater student, chose mementos that could comfort the awkward, different new girl who’s having trouble fitting in – such as a flip phone with all her contacts from her old life. Others reflected the character’s travels with a travel-writer mom. “She wouldn’t have an American backpack,” reasons the Hillsdale, N.J. resident. “It would be something she got in Peru or Japan or somewhere.”
For the character-driven play “The Wolves,” which opens Thursday, Feb. 21, on the Kingston campus, Walshe, like a coach, has employed numerous exercises and drills to get her players ready, and to bring greater authenticity to the production. (Tickets for the play went on sale Feb. 11. Get tickets.)
“The Wolves,” Sarah DeLappe’s 2016 Pulitzer-nominated play, is simply about nine players of an elite under-18 girls’ soccer team over six weeks of their indoor season. But it’s as complex as the stories of nine individual teenagers – the driven team captain, a player who may have had an abortion, the newcomer, the girl whose mom died of cancer.
As tragic as that sounds, “The Wolves” is very funny, along with being moving. The players are in nearly constant motion, seemingly always in the midst of lunges, sprints, squats, ball drills. And the dialogue is as rapid, with multiple conversations dueling like opposing radio signals. The topics are disparate – sex, death, parents, children in cages at the border, sanitary pads vs. tampons, Harry Potter, snake-handling rituals, the Khmer Rouge (and how it’s pronounced), does the new girl live in a yogurt?
“They are 16 or 17. A lot of them are still girls and some of them have made the cross into being a woman,” says Walshe. “They’ve been playing together since they were little, and their relationships are both familial and tribal, and primal. They’re cruel to each other, but they are also incredibly loving to each other. We really see those primal, tribal instincts that are true of a lot of human nature that is really in full technicolor here.”
Walshe, of Cranston, who’s 9-year-old daughter plays soccer, spent a lot of time researching the sport in preparation, watching men’s and women’s games. She and the actors also attended an indoor soccer game “just to watch good athletes play the game,” says Walshe.
She also collaborated with members of the URI women’s soccer team, who put actors through conditioning drills during audition callbacks. The cast also attended a URI soccer practice and paired off with a team member who plays their position to gain insight into how they approach the game.
Paluzzi, who played soccer from kindergarten through eighth grade, retains an appreciation of the sport. “It was always my best part of the school year, so I’d always get psyched for it,” she says. “I couldn’t do it in high school because I was doing theater.”
And knowledge of soccer has helped her prepare for her role. “Especially with soccer, it’s a big team effort,” she says. “There’s some kind of wave length that all your brains have to be one to make sure the ball gets in the goal.”
To prepare for a role, Boyle routinely goes through the script multiple times, determining her character’s relationship with others. During table readings for “The Wolves,” she says, the cast analyzed every line and the relationship of the characters speaking. “I’ve done this before,” says Boyle, “but never to the extent we did with this show. We unlocked things about the show you never would have thought of.”
“One thing Rachel is really amazing at is table work,” says Paluzzi. “You feel like you’re in a class learning, but you’re really learning about yourself.”
With “The Wolves,” the actors are getting a chance to play characters not so much younger than themselves, and that has made the connection easier.
“For my character in particular,” says Boyle, “I really related a lot to her because that was me on my volleyball team in high school. All of the girls don’t really accept her and kind of brush her off and don’t talk to her, so I felt really connected to her because of that.”
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were thinking these thoughts and feeling these feelings,” adds Paluzzi. “On the other hand, it is a role. There’s still work that has to be done and thought that has to be put into it.”
“The Wolves” runs Feb. 21-23 and Feb. 28-March 2 with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. in the J Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, on the Kingston campus. On Feb. 24 and March 3, shows begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors, URI faculty, staff and students. To purchase tickets, visit web.uri.edu/theatre/current-season, or call (401) 874-5843.
For the play, set design is by Max Ponticelli, a lecturer in the URI Theatre Department; costume design is by guest artist Toni Spadafora-Sadler; lighting design is by Marc Tiberiis II, assistant technical director; and sound design is by guest artist Michael Hyde.
Cast of “The Wolves”:
Actor, hometown, character
Carleigh Boyle, Hillsdale, N.J., #46
Nina Carbone, Piermont, N.Y., #00
Madison Cook-Hines, Greene, #25
Lily Ferreira, Middletown, #8
Valerie Ferris, Staten Island, N.Y., #7
Ardemis Kassabian, Wakefield, #14
Mary Mullane, Warwick, #13
Olivia Paluzzi, Braintree, Mass., #2
Katharine Templeton, Providence, #11
Cheryl Foster, Wakefield, Soccer Mom