Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gruesome Playground Injuries Lovingly Tended

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Elisabeth Ross

Nate Sullivan and Becca Anderson
Iowa City - Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuires is a very dark two-hander that, despite its morbid subject matter, holds a lot of laughter and life. It tells the story of Kayleen (Becca Anderson) and Doug (Nate Sullivan), two messed-up kids who can't stop hurting themselves. Doug is reckless, a daredevil, always upping the stakes, trying any stupid stunt to get close to Kayleen. Kayleen, cautious, afraid of intimacy, pushes Doug away, calling him "retarded" and "freak," though she can't deny the strange hold he has on her. They meet at the age of eight, in the nurse's office at St. Margret Mary's Elementary School. Kayleen has a stomachache. Doug just rode his bike off the roof. They're immediately drawn to one another, and as the narrative jumps forward and backward over the next thirty years and they show off their various physical and emotional scars, a love story unfolds that is unusual, grisly, and strangely intimate.

The production is largely successful, due to Joseph's evocative writing, director Chuck Dufano's minimalist staging, and the extremely committed acting of Anderson and Sullivan. Joseph brings considerable craft to bear in telling the story of these two damaged misfits, knowing when to go for the laughs, when to go for the heartstrings, and when to reveal just a little bit more to raise the stakes. Dufano gets the nuances of the tone and guides the actors through it elegantly. Anderson and Sullivan are great at building character, and are deeply committed scene partners.

From the moment Anderson trots on stage as a bubbly eight-year old, it's clear that time will play a very important role in this piece. She gets the high energy and impressionable nature of eight as easily as she gets the uncomfortable grumpiness of thirteen, and so on in each stage of Kayleen's life, her character work and her physical presence roots her in the proper time. She has a great sense of comic timing and she works particularly well with Sullivan, pushing away from his childish advances, then turning back toward him like a rubbernecking driver at an accident scene. Near the end, when Anderson stares up at Sullivan with wide, adoring eyes, it's clear that Kayleen is desperately in love with Doug, though she'll never have the guts to say so.

Sullivan is very at ease in Doug's world, hobbling on stage with some very specific physical work. He also plays the age shifts very well: when he chases Anderson around the stage with his sock, he is just as clearly an obnoxious thirteen as his quiet, wheelchair-bound form at the end is a prematurely tired thirty-eight. There is a really interesting growth in Doug, and we see the journey clearly in Sullivan's work. Through much of the play, he is desperate for any chance to be with Kayleen, whom he idolizes as a guardian angel. He gets himself deeper and deeper into danger until the plot becomes entertainingly absurd... then he becomes tired, worn out, truly broken. In the end, he knows not even Kayleen can fix him; all he can do is long for the forgotten youth that they shared. It's a very sad story, but the connection between them is so magical that it is, in the end, uplifting.

Becca Anderson and Nate Sullivan
Dufano's staging is simple and effective. A handful of acting cubes create the number of different places visited throughout the play. The play is staged in a traverse setting, playing with diagonals and using the extreme ends of the stage when both actors need to be seen. This usually works quite well, though the stage is often not sufficiently lit to play the extreme end. Though sometimes a bit of shadow is great for setting a mood, at times an actor is standing in the other's light and one wishes they had hung a few extra instruments. For the most part, though, this setup is quite effective.

There is one exception: the traverse setting makes the scene changes quite awkward. Joseph has a very specific vision for these, dictating that the actors change and rearrange the stage in view of the audience, at a measured pace that marks the passage of time (rather than a hurried "let's get the show on the road" that is typical in a show with a lot of transitions). Dreamwell's production follows this, but between the staging and the lighting it is in an uncomfortable position; the actors are neither the center of attention nor quite out of view. We see them undress and wonder whether we're supposed to be looking; we see them move blocks and wonder whether they're in character or not. We see Anderson aid Sullivan in dressing, twirling a bandage around his head, and wonder why this isn't done dead center, because it is such a lovely moment to witness. Part of this is the simple practical matter of where to put the props table combined with the lack of light coverage, but it seems these moments are often rushed or thrown away, a missed opportunity to enrich the theatrical experience.

The costumes are worth it, however, because they do a great job, along with the impeccable acting work, of rooting the characters in a specific age and time. All in all, Gruesome Playground Injuires sets a very convincing reality that really allows the flights of romantic fancy to set sail.

I encourage you to go see this show; you don't often get to see something as grim and as devilishly fun as a Rajiv Joseph play, and Dreamwell's crew does an excellent job bringing it to life. Gruesome Playground Injuries has three more performances: November 16, 22, and 23, each at 7:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

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