Marisela Treviño Orta’s new play Wolf at the Door at Milagro Theatre is a blend of fairy tale and Aztec myth. Its heroine, Isadora, is in an abusive relationship with Séptimo. Séptimo has kidnapped Yolot, a pregnant Wolf-Spirit-Person, and wants to steal her baby. Wolves howl in the distance throughout the show, communicating with Yolot. Isadora (Marian Mendez), Yolot (Maya Malán-González), and the Wolves all plot to take down Séptimo (Matthew Sepeda). Human, Spirit, and Animal come together to triumph over an abuser. As an idea, that’s pretty awesome. On stage, it dosn’t land so well.
Wolf at the Door – it’s part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program, with companies in New Jersey, Dallas, and Chicago also producing it – opens with Isadora’s baby dying in childbirth. Then Rocío (Patricia Alvitez), a maternal sage figure, digs a hole in the ground to bury the corpse. That’s an intense image at the top of any play. And the intensity only goes up from there.
The ancient stories that Treviño Orta used as sources, and which are outlined in the study guide Milagro provides its audience, are compelling. One reason fairy tales and myths have good shelf lives is their simplicity: They succinctly impart the profound. For example, fairy-tale characters are often clearly delineated as either good or bad. That lack of more complex definition works well in storytelling/oral traditions, but here it makes the action onstage fall flat.
Take Séptimo. He’s the embodiment of machismo. He’s supposed to be an addition to the conversation on toxic masculinity. But the persistent extremity of his character’s brutality is monotonous, even verging on cartoonish, when, for example, he chokes three women within the span of 60 seconds. The constant barrage of sudden violence from Séptimo is too persistent to hold attention. Orta did attempt to give Séptimo dimension in a monologue where he describes his own victimization. But by that point the character has been so caricatured that adding a sympathetic backstory is ineffective.
Isadora’s devotion to Séptimo is problematic, too – not because it’s unrealistic, but because the abuser/victim dynamic is too subtle to come across in characters this one-dimensional. When Isadora professes her devotion to Séptimo at the height of his brutality, it feels more confusing than true. She says she “sees the man” in him, and that her love might be able to help bring said loviness out. That’s a textbook Beauty and the Beast abuse dynamic. But this play just seems to present it, as if to say, “See?” without making a powerful statement about it. By the end, it isn’t clear whether Isadora is ambivalent, naive, heroic, or underwritten.
Another problem with the script is its cheesy one-liners: Isadora says, “Could you ever love me?” and Séptimo pauses and says, “Love is a fever dream.” The plot is so intense that with the addition of cliches like this, important themes take a back seat to melodrama. I got the sense that Orta tried to weave together too many big ideas, and rather than synthesizing, they became muddled as they mashed together.
My favorite part of the show, which is directed by Rebecca Martinez, is Yolot’s relationship to her pack of wolves howling in the distance. The sense of her familial connectivity with the wolves truly comes through when she howls to them and they howl back. The production design (set by Emily Wilken, lighting by Robert Reimanis, costumes by Sumi Wu, sound by Lawrence Siulagi) is also very good. The set’s dark, earthy tone and the feeling of the folktale come through satisfyingly, and cello music during transitions brings out a mysticism that amplifies the allure of the set.
Unfortunately, there are one too many over-the-top moments in Wolf at the Door to be redeemed by its lovely aesthetic.
Wolf at the Door continues through May 25 at Milagro Theatre, 525 S.E. Stark St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.