Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Gruesome Playground Injuries
Made Up Theatre

Also see Eddie's reviews of Each and Every Thing, Irene, and Freedomland, Richard's reviews of Club Inferno and Glengarry Glen Ross and Patrick's review of Cymbeline


Walking into the cute and miniscule Made Up Theatre where ticket-taking, concessions, four rows of seats, and small stage are boxed together in compact proximity, eyes quickly turn to the ceiling-high, blackboard walls engulfing the audience and stage. With the title Gruesome Playground Injuries chalked in bold letters in one corner and big pieces of colored chalk ready for anyone's taking, audience members are soon busy writing messages like "When I was 7, I concussed myself trying to dunk a basketball" and "My father pushed me into the car and crack went my arm." Shifting attention from the audience recalling childhood accidents to the opening moments of Rajiv Joseph's 2011 play, we are not surprised to see before us a nurse's station of an elementary school where a girl is lying ashen on a bench and a boy enters with a bloodied bandage around his head. She, who gets frequent stomach aches and vomiting attacks, and he, who just rode his bike off the Catholic school's roof, are about to begin what will be a 30-year journey of shared hurts, aches, and pains—physical, emotional, and mental. And along the way, they will fast develop and long keep a friendship and affection that we will have the privilege to witness and to wonder at.

The time travelogue that plays out before us in eight periods of Kayleen's and Doug's lives alternates among the few moments their lives actually intersect, between the ages of 8 and 38. The reunions more often than not coincide with yet another daredevil accident on Doug's part, like a firecracker exploding in his eye, an eight-inch nail in the foot, or a lightning-bolt's greeting on a wet telephone pole during a thunderstorm. Along the way, Kayleen matches his woes with her own increasingly devastating effects of lifelong anxiety and depression. Other than their jointly ending up in healthcare facilities of all types, these two share little else in common. Doug is from a solid, loving family, goes to college, and has lots of opportunities to succeed that evade Kayleen whose mother abandoned her at an early age, leaving her with a father who resented and even detested her presence. Yet these two strike a chord in each other early on that gets reinforced in the strangest (and often funniest to them and us) of ways. Sharing and usually one-upping each other in stories about pain and suffering is core to the strange and intimate dialogue that marks each encounter. Together with oft-repeated jabs and pokes ("You are such a retard"), special names for each other ("Dougie" and "Leenie"), and moments of one just quietly allowing the other to stare blankly into space, Kayleen and Doug thread their infrequent and unplanned visits into a roped bond that becomes both a lifeline for survival and a heavy weight that threatens to sink one or both of them.

Maria Candelaria and Bobby August, Jr. could hardly be better matched individually or as a pair to be Kayleen and Doug. Whether eight or thirty-eight, each is totally believable (even in this close-up setting) with age-appropriate energy, quirks, facial expressions, and voices. Childhood playfulness, teenage hormones, and adult bodies now wracked with injury or drug abuse play out with ease before us. In one scene, Kayleen enters silently with such a look of nausea that my own stomach began to turn in sympathy. In the next, the teen boy that was jiving and jumping a few minutes ago now barely stumbles across the floor, leaning on a cane and with a look of pain that hurts us all. The sparks—both of affection and of tension—that spring between these two are visible and genuine. The hurt and the disappointment along with the joy of remembering a happier time and the sighs of mutual understanding are so real that it is easy to forget we are watching a play and not a documentary. Ms. Candelaria and Mr. August, even on opening night, appear as two veteran actors who have played already a long run together.

But the two actors do not alone make this evening of theatre the outstanding event it is. Iu-Hui Chua as director has made some clever, powerful decisions on how to stage not only the scenes but also the breaks between them. With scene gaps leap-frogging between ten and fifteen years, we watch as our actors transform on stage a few feet before us in make-up, dress, and even body and facial expression. The actors' changes are accompanied by music whose lyrics are like virtual thought bubbles above their pensive, quiet heads ("I can't get used to losing you," "I would walk 500 miles to see you again," "It ain't easy to say good-by ... Stay tonight, come tomorrow, tomorrow I'll be gone forever."). And the simple but totally effective design of Maggie Chan's set enables easy (but still impressive) leaping onto a roof, multiple room set-ups with three simple props, quick chalking of new scene decorations, and two doors that open the way for the final, powerful climax of the play.

Having seen an excellent version of this Rajiv Joseph gem two years ago at San Francisco's also intimate Tides Theatre, I was skeptical what this initial production of Made Up Theatre (usually a school and venue for improvisation) might be. What I once again learned is that on any given night, on any given live theatre stage of any size, magic can and does happen in a way unique to any other previous production of the same play. Congratulations to Made Up Theatre for this initial venture into Equity theatre. I guarantee there is an audience hoping that Gruesome Playground Injuries is the first of many such evenings of theatre delight for this company.

Gruesome Playground Injuries continues through July 19, 2015, at Made Up Theatre, 3392 Seldon Court, Fremont. Tickets are available online at www.madeuptheatre.com.

- Eddie Reynolds


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