Jamie Konchak and Patrick MacEachern in the Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth production of GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES by Rajiv Joseph. Photo Credit Trudie Lee
Gruesome Playground Injuries
November 10 – 24, 2012
The Studio at Vertigo Theatre Centre
Some people are bound together by love. Others by misfortune. Then there are some folks who find connection in their shared love of misfortune. Or as is the case for the characters in Gruesome Playground Injuries, their shared love of personal, painful, physical and not so accidental misfortune. Bumps, bruises, breaks and scrapes don’t even begin to describe what Kayleen (Jamie Konchak) and Doug (Patrick MacEachern) do to themselves and conjure in each other in this decidedly unique but not altogether satisfying play by Ravi Joseph.
Best known for his Broadway hit and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams, American playwright Joseph once again peppers his script with the dark comedy he is known for (Joseph also wrote for the Showtime series black comedy Nurse Jackie for a couple seasons), yet Gruesome Playground Injuries somehow lacks the punch and the zest of his previous attempts. And unfortunately the same can be said for Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth’s production which, despite some outstanding production touches and performance moments, missed the mark often enough to drain the bite out of the show.
As the play opens, Kayleen and Doug meet at the elementary school infirmary, he with a cracked head from riding his bike off the roof and she with an unexplained stomach ache that causes bucket-worthy vomiting. Instantly the two are as fascinated with each other’s wounds as they seem to be with their own pain and the play takes us on a 30 year reunion of sorts as they continue to come together in injury in hospitals, at funerals, at mental institutions and just the plain everyday life of harm-junkies. All this is accomplished via open flowing vignettes where the actors go from one age to another by changing clothes on stage and wiping off past blood to make way for the drawing on of new wounds. Set on an antiseptic bare white stage save for Set Designer Deitra Kalyn’s cleverly conceived connected set of cot-like hospital beds, the scene changes are helped along by floor projections giving title to each scene and informing the audience of the character’s age and injury at the time. So audiences are told that a scene is called “Eye Blown Out – Twenty Three” or “Face Split Open – Eight”. All great effects to be sure, but more often than not I found the techno stuff and the readying for the next scene to be far more compelling than the scenes themselves.
Part of the problem falls to the writing. Kayleen and Doug are characters that are barely developed past the injuries they sustain, making it difficult to empathize or care for them even as they suffer so. Joseph keeps the two platonic, but there is no doubt that their shared pain is a bond that is sexual in nature. However once again, without motivation for their actions or attractions, the audience is kept at a distance, fated to only watch, not experience. This would work if the play was a true dark comedy where the gross-out factor and the level of inappropriateness was so extreme that you really only want to watch as though witnessing a car crash. But instead the writing veers towards cutesy too much of the time to be biting:
Doug – I’m accident prone.
Kayleen – Riding on your handlebars down a hill isn’t accident prone, it’s retarded!
Doug -You shouldn’t say retarded; it’s rude to retarded people.
Kayleen – Sorry I offended you.
Ha-ha says the audience in a group giggle. But the spell of the weirdness is broken by the fairly mainstream joke, leaving us with neither darkness nor roaring comedy nor tragedy to hold onto.
The spell of this production was also broken for me by some questionable direction choices and an uneven performance. With the actors on stage at all times, changing clothes, blood spatters and bandages, there is much to direct in this production and during the narrative part of the story, Director Ryan Luhning does a remarkable job keeping the pace and the pieces just right. It’s during the interstitial moments in the play that Luhning’s vision falters as he allows Konchak to dress and undress employing a silly, bop around the stage kind of treatment. Not only did it seem to mock the story and the audience, but when compared to MacEachern’s straight take on these moments, it felt totally out of place, grating and unintelligently farcical.
The issues with Konchak continued beyond some unfortunate direction. There is a lot to be admired in her performance of Kayleen – the way she brings emotion into the quieter moments of her performance and how she can maintain tension without having to say too much. But my quibbles with Konchak in this role seem to be my issue with her acting in every role I’ve seen her in – namely that when she emotes strongly it feels forced, as though she has yet to really internalize the lines or the character. In all fairness, there really isn’t that much to inhabit in this role, but when compared to the excellent performance by her co-star, MacEachern, who managed to hit his emotional sweetspots throughout the play, Konchak seemed lacking at times.
There is no doubt that Gruesome Playground Injuries is not a play for everyone. But in the end I’m having a hard time figuring out who the play is for. It isn’t a true tragedy or a black comedy. It doesn’t have great things to say about our state of connection or our use of pain to disconnect. It’s not that deep. Nor is it quirky enough to just stand on its own. The production certainly had many superb elements in it and while there were some weak spots it should be noted that the production I saw was a preview where the team was still taking notes and putting finishing touches on things. But is a great production worth a not so great play? Perhaps one day someone will make this show either more gruesome or a better story and I’ll feel its injuries more deeply.
For the guys – I don’t think you will relate to either character, but the manner in which the gore gets realized on stage is a very cool experience as is much of the production. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – Not for the weak stomached, but not for the gals who like good dark humour either. There is a self-harm scene that will wallop you emotionally, but the rest might leave you cold. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Nope. Not at all. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – You will find parts compelling. You won’t care enough to dislike the rest. MAYBE SEE IT