At Pacific Theatre until April 16, 2016
Posted April 3, 2016
Only once in a while do I completely miss the boat on a play but this one really sailed without me. It’s a horrible feeling when an audience is laughing and you just don’t get it. You’re seeing the same scenes, hearing the same dialogue but it doesn’t strike you as funny at all. Pacific Theatre’s artistic director Ron Reed writes in his program notes how much he likes this play, adding, “I also think it’s really funny. But maybe that’s just me.” So maybe my problem with Gruesome Playground Injuries is also, “just me.”
The framing of the play is, at first, entertaining and inventive. Eight-year-old Doug and Kayleen meet in the nurse’s office of their private school. At each side of the tiny Pacific Theatre performance area are racks with multiple hooks on which hang clothes that will be taken on and off, scene after scene. Actors Pippa Johnstone and Kenton Klassen arrive on stage in their underwear and race to put on their characters’ school uniforms, watching each other as they do. They lie down on the two, webbed cots. Doug has a head wound; Kayleen has a stomach ache. This scene is played out again and again in fifteen-year intervals with escalating injuries or ailments over their three-decade friendship.
Kayleen is emotionally damaged while Doug is either self-destructive or stupid: climbing a tree with his bike to access the school roof and riding off it like “Evel Knevel”. Holding a firecracker too long. Climbing a telephone pole during in a lightning storm.
Kayleen’s psychotic behaviour escalates: she begins cutting herself. Doug’s injuries get more and more serious.
This then, is how it goes – and goes and goes. Scenes, like “The Limbo: Scene 3”, “Scene 5: Pink Eye”, “Scene 633: Blue Raspberry Dip” or “Face Split Open” are announced. In each scene, Kayleen and Doug are older or younger, wear different clothes – high heels on her, a tie and suit jacket on him.
Problem: while Kayleen has been unloved by her father and appears to be looking for attention or punishing herself, I don’t know what Doug’s motivation is so I have to assume, as Kayleen repeatedly says, he’s “stupid”.
Problem: is playwright Rajiv Joseph just saying, “Love hurts”? Since I didn’t actually believe in all the injuries I went off looking for metaphors: maybe loving someone leaves scars and Joseph is simply making the injuries visible. That could be kind of interesting.
Problem: Doug believes Kayleen is some kind of healer. I didn’t buy that for a minute. But on a metaphorical level, perhaps love does heal all wounds. But not in this play.
Problem: the dialogue is repetitive. “Does it hurt?” followed almost always by, “A little”. The lines are repeated enough that I had to believe the playwright was trying to make something of it. A refrain carrying some profundity that I missed? I lost track of the number of times Kayleen calls Doug “stupid” or “retarded” and tells him to “shut up.” Is there a point to all the repetition?
Problem: Doug’s angry outbursts come out of a vacuum. “I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him”, he rages after Kayleen’s “boyfriend” has sex with her. “I’m gonna kill him.”
Problem: supposedly these two have a deep, deep bond. When Kayleen refuses to cut Doug because, as she says, she can only cut herself, he replies, “I’m not someone else. I’m you.” At this point I even tried thinking of them as two aspects of one person. Nope. Their ‘oneness’ evaded me.
Gruesome Playground Injuries made me angry and that’s worth looking at. And probably making the play worth staging. It’s definitely not a ho-hum script. Infuriating, yes; boring, no. Well, “a little”.
Chelsea Haberlin ably directs this strange little play. Johnstone and Klassen are playful and in control of the material and certainly make the most of the dressing/undressing scenes. In fact, I found the interaction between the actors in these entr’actes more interesting than the play itself.
I missed this boat, for sure. Read other reviews before dismissing this show. Washington Post: “Mystical, arresting, and quirkily amusing.” Globe and Mail: “a slightly sick but touching portrait of a friendship founded on mutually reassured self-destruction.” Or a more negative one from L&S Online America: “In the last analysis, Gruesome Playground Injuries gives you no reason to care about its two distressed souls.”
If watching self-destructive behaviour floats your boat, Gruesome Playground Injuries might be for you.