Ike Holter’s world-premiere ‘Wolf’ gets Chicago right
|Teatro Vista presents|
|The Wolf at the End of the Block|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Holter’s résumé (Hit the Wall, Sender, Exit Strategy) is a roster of intensely compelling, Chicago-set dramas that have been critically acclaimed and box-office hits. Wolf doesn’t disappoint. Directed by Ricardo Gutierrez, it delivers an intensely watchable crime thriller steeped in suspense and unnerving moral ambiguity. The characters onstage are highly specific, but they are also Chicago itself. What happens to them feels like it is happening to us.
Holter goes for the jugular from the opening scene, with the appearance of a bloodied, slightly disoriented man. Abe (Gabriel Ruiz) is bleeding from the nose and the forehead, the stench of panic as tangible as the blood. He’s at one of those late-night gas-liquor-and-snack joints, pleading with the unseen person behind the counter. Saying more would result in spoilers, so we’ll leave it at that.
Wolf then moves to an alley behind the convenience store where Abe works. Store owner Nunley (Bear Bellinger) and Abe’s sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñoz) are in a rapid-fire back-and-forth about Abe’s reliability. Abe is late, again, and Nunley has (more or less) officially had it with his chronically tardy employee. The back-and-forth between the two exemplifies Holter’s keen ear for dialogue. If you’re a Chicagoan, you’ve heard this kind of pervasive flare-up a thousand times, maybe while waiting for a bus, maybe while waiting in line to buy coffee, maybe while just walking down the street. In Miranda and Nunley, It feels authentic and spontaneous down to the punctuation.
It’s also what we’ve come to expect from Holter. His way with Chicagoans’ words is the cornerstone of The Wolf at the End of the Block. Even when they are delivering monologues, his characters talk without a sliver of artifice or staginess. The stone-truth of their speech makes the crimes at the heart of Wolf feel all the more real and so all the more unnerving.
There’s not much you can say about the plot without getting into spoilers: It revolves around a bar, a horrific crime, and a hyper-powerful journalist who decides to turn the crime into a politically charged, city-upending cause celebre. All this plays out behind Nunley’s store, and – in one hair-raisingly powerful scene – in a murky bar where Nunley and a stranger strike up a casual conversation that gets really ominous, really fast.
Gutierrez’ cast makes every moment of the 90-minute piece count. Every word matters here – there’s no clutter, no fat. The cast keeps the momentum roaring forward even in the quietest moments.
As Abe, Ruiz creates a man who is defined by both deep damage heroic strength. Abe has distinct echoes of Jurgis Rudkus, the desperately hardworking anti-hero of “The Jungle.” Like Jurgus, all Abe really wants is to make sure what’s left of his family is safe and cared for. And as in the corrupt Chicago of 1906, Abe’s Chicago is a deck stacked a mile high against him. Over the past five years or so, Ruiz’s body of work has been slowly but steadily turning him into the leading man of his generation in Chicago. Here, he continues on that track by creating a a character of pride and rage and complex flaws.
Bellinger’s Nunley is one of those searingly vivid characters that leave an indelible memory in your brain. Nunley’s whipsmart banter is head-spinning. And when he slows down in the aforementioned bar scene? Let’s just say that’s a scene every aspiring actor should study. Nunley is the sort of man who will give his friends his undying loyalty – unless they give him reason to doubt it’s reciprocated. Doubt rears up early in Wolf – money has gone missing from the store’s safe, and Nunley is biding his time before going over the security cam footage that will reveal who stole it. The theft provides a secondary mystery that runs like a razor wire through the drama and it shows that Bellinger’s Nunley is nobody to be trifled with.
As the high-powered investigative reporter Frida, Sandra Marquez is as a 21st century Humphrey Bogart. Clipped, hard-bitten, and nobody to mess with, she’s a gimlet-eyed, lethal force in stilettos and impeccably cut suits. The primary flaw in Holter’s plot lies in Frida: In very short order, she goes from being uninterested in pursing the crime at hand to being determined to turn it into a massive story. Her change of heart feels sudden, and not entirely earned. Even still, Marquez’ Frida is irresistible. Wherever Frida decides to take the story, you’ll want to follow.
James D. Farruggio shows up relatively late in Wolf as a lurking, shadowy figure in a neighborhood tavern. He’s got menace radiating from his pores, even when he’s making innocuous smalltalk. And when that talk veers away from inconsequential pleasantries? Uff. Farruggio reveals shades of something both sinister and monstrously banal – the latter making him all the more frightening. As Abe’s sister Miranda, Muñoz has the energy of a firecracker. She’d take a bullet for her brother, even though she can’t quite find a way to help him with the rent.
Milo Bue’s noirish scenic design evokes shadowy corners and urban decay, ideal visuals for the story. Diana D. Fairchild’s lighting design does likewise, ramping up the nighttime shadows, the glare of 24-hour store fluorescents and the dim palette of a city alley.
Holter never comes out and identifies just who the real wolf is, and that is to the play’scredit. It could be any of us. And that’s what helps make The Wolf at the End of the Block such a fascinating drama.
The Wolf at the End of the Block continues through March 5th at Richard Christiansen Theater at VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $25-$30, and are available by phone (773.871.3000) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at TeatroVista.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Note: Suitable for mature audiences only.)
Photos by Joel Maisonet
Gabriel Ruiz (Abe), Bear Bellinger (Nunley), Ayssette Muñoz (Miranda), Sandra Marquez (Frida), James D. Farruggio (James), Jackie Alamillo, Raphael Diaz, Tony Santiago, Scot West, Ilse Zacharias (understudies.)
behind the scenes
Ricardo Gutierrez (director), Milo Bue (scenic design), Diane D. Fairchild (lighting design), Uriel Gomez (costume design), Eric Backus (sound design), Kendra Miller (dramaturg), Jamie Karas (props design), Jennifer Aparicio (production manager), Stephanie Hurowitz (stage manager), Angelica Acevedo-Frint (assistant director, graphics), Joel Maisonet (photography)