Amid an orchestra of cricket chirps and cicada buzzing, before the pew-like benches assembled for attendants, there is a sign bannered across of the revival tent stage. Depicting a number of silhouetted figures toiling between rays of light and shadow, it reads with words both bold and white, “Prepare to meet thy God.” Thus is the essence of Triad Stage’s magnificent production of Brother Wolf at the Hanesbrand Theatre. It is there that the pull of forgiveness must topple that of revenge, and piety is at war with the greatest of evil.
Brother Wolf, written and directed by Preston Lane with original music by Laurelyn Dossett, was the first collaborative effort for the duo, who have partnered on several productions since this show’s premiere in 2006. Governed by a mutual passion for Southern cultural sustainability – by means of reimagining oral tradition, storytelling, and incorporating folk music – their creative marriage yields theatrical pieces that are inventive yet rooted in Carolinian distinctiveness.
The story is adapted from the Old English poem Beowulf, written anonymously by an Anglo-Saxton poet estimated around the 10th century, although little is known for sure. It tells of heroism as a young prince fights off a monster and its mother, eventually becoming king. In this current version, Lane sets the story deep into the Appalachian Mountains, where snake handling false prophets and demons run rampant. The appropriately named Brother Wolf, a traveling preacher and demon slayer, encounters the Speerdane family as they struggle to protect themselves from the sadistic monster Grin Dell. Once defeating the demon, Brother Wolf soon discovers that his battle has just only began and will require more than he has to give in order to be victorious.
As a playwright, Preston Lane excels at delivering epic stories that span over long periods of time with circulating motifs. The use of multiple story-telling devices in the text, such as incorporating character narration, has become a signature to his unique style and approach to Southern theatre. As a result, audiences are able to identify with story elements and characters more authentically while often being exposed to new material.
Laurelyn Dossett’s beautiful and haunting music propels the story in all the areas in which the text may lack. It is the musicality of the production that truly reinforces the environment of the play. The songs continuously illustrate a world both grounded in reality and mythicality, all while conveying most of the production’s emotional sentiment. Dossett and fellow musician Riley Baugus exclusively make up the band. They offer powerful vocals, while also playing various instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, and guitar.
Chris Raddatz (Brother Wolf and Rattler Man) was passionate and confident. He was able to capture the emotional pull and faith-wavering vulnerability that governs the title character. Raddatz was also able to flawlessly execute the conviction needed to be moving and credible as a preacher in both roles. In a particularly captivating performance, Dori Legg (Hessie and Gren Dell’s Maw) was a standout. Legg’s versatility and mastery of the dialect was inspiring to watch, as she is truly an actor’s actor.
Set designer Howard C. Jones has constructed a world that easily transitions from sprawling to intimate with very few components. The use of wooden benches that lend themselves to creating a number of other set pieces, such as shelters, an altar, and a massive hanging cross, is highly innovative. There are also 12 beams that circled around the stage as if supporting the entire world of the play. This element is deeply symbolic of the dichotomy of the “structural” strength of having faith, along with the fragility of the metaphoric ceiling collapsing at any moment.
Triad Stage’s production of Brother Wolf is profound in the most universal way. The demons that must be faced throughout life take numerous forms, and require an arsenal of love, courage, and forgiveness in order to be conquered. There is a distinct reason variations of this tale continue to circulate around us, as with this exciting adaptation. Brother Wolf is a great teacher, with the parables of his life laced with truth regardless of how fanciful the details. Besides, as the character Hessie points out at the start of the show, “maybe it’s the telling that makes him real.”
Brother Wolf continues through Sunday, May 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.