“Gruesome Playground Injuries”: Vulnerability, Need, and Love

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Performed Friday, October 13 through Sunday, October 15 at the intimate venue of the Bates Black Box theater, the blood that we see coursing through “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph is thick. In this fiercely realistic combination of tragedy and comedy, blood starts off as a light and comic character that quickly turns into a congealed liquid version of itself.

Making smart use of vignettes that tell the story in a nonlinear way, Keila K. “Kei” Ching ’18 directs the piece and effectively takes us on the journey of Doug’s and Kayleen’s unresolved love story. For thirty years, Doug is “prone to accident” and injured multiple times, whereas Kayleen is scarred by her self-destructive habits and her life experiences.

Injuries and scars follow these two characters and become the basis for a love story where the display of vulnerability, physical or otherwise, is the covalent bond that draws these two atoms together. In Ching’s words, “it’s about vulnerability and having the vulnerability to expose one’s wound to one another.”

With stellar performances from both Gavin Schuerch ’18 as Doug and Charlotte Karlsen ’20 as Kayleen, Ching’s directorial choices effectively bring the audience into the vulnerable flow of the story. The stage set up, audience on two sides with actors in the middle, and the open display of costume changing on stage break the fourth wall with the audience. These choices do not but intensify the vulnerability of the characters and create a stronger sense of empathy in the audience.

Early in the performance, eight-year-old Kayleen tells Doug that the room where they are “is like a dungeon” which she goes on to explain to Doug is a place “where people languish.” This seemingly innocent statement seems to dictate part of Schuerch and Karlsen’s acting. All throughout the almost 90-minute-long piece, Kayleen and Doug seem to be stuck in an unresolved conflict which reflects in the seemingly static acting of Schuerch and Karlsen. The intention of the playwright, the direction of Ching, and the effective enactment of this intention by the actors created what I interpreted as a sense of immutability throughout the years, which irritated me.

It would be interesting to look at the non-sequential vignettes chronologically because a more obvious sense of character development can be appreciated. For the first few years, Doug seems to believe Kayleen can always heal him and is the one doing most of the chasing. He looks for her for years, not being able to find her. Whenever he actually manages to find her, she rejects his support. At some point, however, roles reverse; Kayleen believes she can heal him but Doug, stuck on a wheelchair, no longer believes he needs her.

In a non-conventional love story, Schuerch and Karlsen bring to life a couple of characters that come together to convey one gruesome truth. When you have not managed to figure your own life out, whether someone will rescue you from it or not, holds little value. Someone can come and try to save you, but eventually the one doing the rescuing is yourself. The overarching message of the play was that if you never truly get to grasp this, you are likely to follow the characters’ fate: you will never realize your love for others.

 

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