Gruesome Playground Injuries a gritty piece of theatre
The belief that love makes us perform crazy and self-destructive acts in pursuit of the desires of the heart has been the inspiration for a seemingly endlessness amount of stage fare. Included in that group is Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, now onstage at the Theatre Centre.
What sets Joseph's play apart is that it delves as much into the physical manifestations of these destructive acts, as it does the psychological and emotional givens. The script has dialogue that pops and fully complex characters that bear their scars as much as they bear their complexities.
At best, it's a really strong one-act that explores an injury inventory over the course of twenty years of friendship. BirdLand's production, directed by Stefan Dzeparoski, tries to stretch the work into 90 minutes using drawn-out costuming and makeup transitions. The script is intriguing, but the translation to stage is overtaxed.
From a young age continuing into teenage hood, Doug (Peter Mooney) and Kayleen's (Janet Porter) adolescent injuries draw them together. As they mature, however, and an unspoken love becomes spoken, the injuries serve as beacons in the fog to draw each other back to the possibility of romance. Joseph cleverly explores the pleasure/pain dynamic of love over a non-linear eight scene structure.
While his characters are complex, they're not exactly universal. Kayleen struggles with self-mutilation and a neglectful and psychologically abusive father, and while Doug is charming, he's not the brightest light bulb in the bunch. It makes them hard to categorize — I was surprised, for instance, that Doug would have gone to college — but also hard to relate to.
Dzeparoski is likely hoping to redeem himself after directing BirdLand's universally panned Soulseek. He sets the action in something of an urban playground featuring chained bubble-wrap figures hanging from the ceiling. It's meant to emphasize the violent nature of the relationship, but the eerie figures seem out of place and ultimately over-stylized.
It carries throughout the production. Between each scene the actors ritualistically apply injury makeup, don new costumes, and engage in breathing exercises. Rather than add another layer to the scenes, the transitions are far too long and the theatrics disconnected.
The performances from Mooney and Porter, however, help to get to the heart of Joseph's dialogue. Both explore the complexities and contradictions of their character, and Mooney is particularly adept at finding dark humour amidst the pain.
Joseph is certainly a playwright on the rise and, if you can get past the overdone theatrics, his work is lifted by the two leads.
Gruesome Playground Injuries, written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Stefan Dzeparoski, runs at the Theatre Centre until May 13.
Photo by Guntar Kravis