Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Gruesome Playground Injuries
But in Rajiv Joseph's beautiful play that premiered in 2009, Gruesome Playground Injuries, innocence is rediscovered again and again in a ruthless sort of way, between two young people. And this strange (comically horrific) rhythm strips the soul bare to a most urgent impulse, over and over again, intensifying a powerful bond. The cost of a spiritual relationship is very high indeed (on the physical level), beginning in a school nurse's office. The lives of Doug and Kayleen are intertwined in funny and dramatic ways as they grow up, in spite of a constant threat to life and limb. There's bloodsport theater for you, Visigoth. But it's mostly just a very touching romantic comedy staged by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (in Webster Groves, Missouri), one charming suburb away, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center (KPAC). At TalkinBroadway we really do try to visit the nicer part of town occasionally, especially in the spring. Anyway, it's all brought in in less than 90 minutes, under the intricate and fast-moving direction of Becks Redman.
You could compare Gruesome Playground Injuries to Bernard Slade's Same Time Next Year, or Constellations by Nick Payne, regarding its episodic structure. And through a strange comic masochism, we are lured especially close to Doug (Brian Slaten) and Kayleen (Jessika D. Williams) as a couple in this offbeat yet impassioned comedy. Mr. Slaten plays a hilarious daredevil idiot, and Ms. Williams is a beautiful damsel in distress, in what could also be read as a very modern version of Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra would be very proud indeed of the mad romance of it all. Five stars, I would say, if I gave out star ratings.
I suppose it helps psychologically (in terms of developing on-stage intimacy) that the two actors are constantly dressing and disrobing in front of each other between scenes. The only other production I've seen of this show literally stopped for minutes at a time, so (usually) the Doug character could apply extensive and dramatic "injury" make-up onstage before each new meet-up. This time, the interstices are ruthlessly brisk.
And the set by the Mexican designer Diggle is full of inventive touches to hasten the inevitable meetings in hospitals, psych wards, and the like. The stage, in the KPAC black box theater, is all plush red surfaces and dark odd mirrors, echoing the rows of stage lights overhead (best visible from the third row, I think), including a big spherical reflective surface, stage left. Fairly glistens, it does, in a David Lynch-ish, brooding, or pop-art inspired, dark, Frank Frazetta-ish sort of way.
And at one point a big wad of curling IV tubes and shiny blue oxygen feeders emerge from the floor, like the tendrils of a jellyfish–only to be barely stuffed back into a hidden compartment before the next scene charges ahead. And though it has thoughtful moments aplenty, this Gruesome Playground Injuries creates its own vibrant, dramatic "color palette." There is no higher compliment than that.
The characters age forward and backward, Mr. Slaten donning a "Phantom"-sized ragged head band at one point, to cover an injured eye. And the bond between the two grows stronger each time they are reunited in the reshuffling of triage moments that lead to great yearning. But it often seems they're trapped in a plush red sort of Hell.
Only late in the action do we realize that we were wrong, though, and they are, in fact, both thrashing around together inside the same beautiful heart.
This is the first show in the new version of the old "Off Ramp" productions done so well by The Rep, continuing now in the new Steve Woolf Studio Series.
Gruesome Playground Injuries runs through May 13, 2023, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 201 E. Monroe, Webster Groves MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association