The Rep explores a fascinating relationship with well-cast "Gruesome Playground Injuries"
- Written by Michelle Kenyon
"Gruesome Playground Injuries" is a somewhat provocative title for a play. Although there are injuries involved, and some sensitive subject matter, this is primarily a play about a relationship. As part of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's Steve Woolf Studio series, and utilizing the excellent black box theatre space at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, this is a cleverly staged, quirky and intriguing production that features a first-rate cast and striking production values.
Written by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Becks Redmond, and starring Brian Slaten as Doug and Jessika D. Williams as Kayleen, the play follows its two characters in a format that's not exactly linear, but doesn't seem random either. We first meet Doug and Kayleen as 8-year-olds in Catholic school, waiting in the nurse's office because Doug has injured himself riding his bike off the school roof, and Kayleen has an upset stomach. The two bond over juvenile humor and gross-out jokes, and their contrasting personalities are shown more clearly as they grow. The adventurous and loyal Doug, and the more anxious, insecure Kayleen have several key meetings over the years, as they become friends, drift apart, and then reconnect in a series of memorable moments, occurring in five year increments and told in an order that makes sense as the events of the play unfold. The players also stay onstage for the duration of the show, changing costumes in between scenes and listing their characters' ages with a marker on a large mirrored backdrop.
It's an intense show, with balanced moments of humor and drama, and well-drawn characters whose connection is made all the more believable through the excellent performances and chemistry of Slaten and Williams, who portray their characters and their evolving relationship dynamic with energy and credible emotion. Their thoroughly engaging performances and director Redman's well-paced staging work together to tell a believable, highly involving story.
The technical qualities of this production are also strong, serving the story well and helping to advance the mood and energy of the story. The carpeted unit set, designed by Diggle, is versatile and makes an appropriate backdrop for the action as the characters grow from childhood to adulthood. The set does have aspects of a playground, as suggested by the play's title. There's also evocative lighting by Anshuman Bhatia and superb sound design by Kareem Deanes, as well as appropriately atmospheric music by David Gomez. The costumes, by Carolyn Mazuca, are well-suited to the characters and changing times, as well as working well for the quick scene changes as the story progresses.
It's worth noting that there is some sensitive subject matter here, including discussions of depression, physical injuries, self-harm, and sexual assault. It's a vividly portrayed, often irreverently humorous tale of two people who share a lasting bond despite periodic long separations. "Gruesome Playground Injuries" may suggest gore and guts in its title, but what's really at its core is the intense connection of the memorable characters. Although the ending is somewhat abrupt, the story itself is a vivid, characterful theatrical experience.
Performances of "Gruesome Playground Injuries" continue at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until May 13. For more information, visit repst.org