Theatre New Brunswick’s 2017-2018 season has opened with Fortune of Wolves, an ambitious dramatic undertaking. Written by New Brunswick playwright Ryan Griffith, Fortune of Wolves tells the story of Lowell, a young man who leaves home to travel across Canada, doing tape recorder interviews with those he meets along the way. On his journey, though, accounts of unexplained disappearances and supernatural phenomena start turning up in both the interviews and in Lowell’s own audio journals. These sinister peripherals boil over at the end the first act, at which point the play takes on a far more apocalyptic tone, though the exact nature of what is happening is left intentionally vague. The play’s second half finds itself far more reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘The Mist’ or of Cloverfield, if it had also been a roadtrip movie, focusing on the reactions of everyday individuals and civilized society across the country in the face of a horrific yet unknowable threat.
The allure of Fortune of Wolves, beyond the intriguing premise itself, is its entirely unique structure. Before every show, a set of dice are rolled backstage to determine which characters will appear. Some characters appear every time, as they play a vital role in the Lowell’s journey, but many more serve a more interchangeable role. In total, the play has a roster of almost 80 characters, out of which 30 will appear to share their stories with Lowell, making every viewing of Fortune of Wolves unique. While just a single viewing is needed to understand and enjoy the story, seeing Fortune of Wolves a second time provides a chance to re-tread the same story with a different cast of characters, and allows audiences to glean more information about the events with the added clarity of context.
Each interview is itself quite captivating—a self-contained introduction to a series of surprisingly well-rounded characters. Whether you meet the trashy-drunk Frederictonian who lays bare her grievances with the town’s shortcomings while shamelessly flirting with Lowell and verbally abusing her roommate, the man outside Bancroft who readily offers his cabin and supplies to any survivors passing through following the disappearance of his husband, or the old Quebecker who simply misses the Montreal Expos, everyone Lowell meets has their own hopes and fears, speak with their own voice and local dialects, and offer a unique perspective on the world. Having seen about half the potential characters between my two viewings (there were a few repeats), there were only a handful that I truly took issue with. The few characters who were openly antagonistic to Lowell were almost cartoonishly over the top in their villainy and were hard to take seriously. Beyond those few exceptions, though, the deep, diverse characterization was one of the most immensely satisfying parts of the play—all the more so when the sheer number of characters is considered.
While many of the interviews were incredibly memorable, it may be suffering from too much of a good thing. Fortune of Wolves runs for two and a half hours and is composed almost entirely of monologues and one-sided conversations above an unsettling ambient score. With minimal action on a mostly empty stage and rarely more than one person providing any dialogue at a time, the play finds itself weighed down beneath its own wealth of content. Having the same slow, subdued pace for its entirety can make an otherwise fairly straightforward play feel quite dense.
Although it is one of the play’s main draws, its random construction can lead to issues in terms of following the full plot. For example, at one point in the second act, Lowell is dead-set on delivering some letters from Lancaster to Gananoque. This is a constant throughout all productions, but the details given can wildly vary. My first viewing featured an interview with a policeman who handed over these letters and clearly explained their importance, but once Lowell reached Gananoque, the letters were never mentioned again. The second time, the policeman was absent, and the letters only appear after Lowell leaves Lancaster, making his dedication to the delivery confusing. Yet, this second viewing also revealed the surprising contents of the letters, leaving the audience with a twist ending to a subplot they’d only just been introduced to. It’s entirely possible that this was simply an unlikely combination amongst thousands of potential permutations of the story, and it was the only real continuity problem I picked up on, but the fact that the story of each showing can change so drastically does mean that it is worth addressing.
One of the core themes of the story is a lack of resolution, which is both a strength and a weakness of the play. We never find out what’s really happening to the world, nor do we learn what happens to most of the people Lowell meets once he leaves. Lowell even directly addresses this overwhelming uncertainty in one of his final entries, embracing it as a chance to draw his own conclusions. At its face value, refusing closure has its merits. It definitely leaves a memorable impact, and a good story doesn’t need to answer absolutely every question. This is a creative decision that I did enjoy, but this sort of approach is best suited for a shorter, more streamlined production. Three quarters of a two-and-a-half hour long play is just snapshots of the lives of characters we’ll never see again. For much of these scenes, there is minimal conflict, interaction or character growth. The end result is a feeling of deflation—after so many stories have been woven together, there is no simple ending that can honestly satisfy.
Fortune of Wolves does suffer some setbacks, but it is an experimental piece trying something entirely new, and in spite of my gripes, I can honestly say that the bold risks it took paid off. The script was excellently written, introducing characters that made me think and feel within their brief times on the stage, and both the plot and experimental structure of the play are refreshing new takes for the medium that are still accessible to casual theatregoers. Future showings will of course be different from those that I’ve seen, but I’d still strongly recommend going out to see Fortune of Wolves if you get the chance. Productions of this original are opportunities that shouldn’t be missed, and if the version of Fortune of Wolves that you get to see is even half as interesting as the ones that I did, it will be well worth the time.
Fortune of Wolves will be showing in Fredericton at the Open Space Theatre at 55 Whiting Road from October 13th to 23rd, after which it will be going on an extensive tour throughout the province. For showtimes, locations and tickets, visit Theatre New Brunswick’s website.