Staging gruesome with grace

commonplacetheatre’s two-person play tackles pain and the strength of human connection

Erica Hill (top) and Zach Closs (bottom) performing in Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Erica Hill (top) and Zach Closs (bottom) performing in Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Supplied by Chantel Martin
Gruesome Playground Injuries, a commonplacetheatre production, provides an in-depth look at pain and the ways it strengthens human connections.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Rajiv Joseph, Gruesome Playground Injuries tells the story of two unlikely friends. Doug, played by Zach Closs, ArtSci ’17, is a charismatic daredevil prone to extreme accidents. Kayleen, played by Erica Hill, ArtSci ’16, is sad and self-destructive despite her strong-willed exterior. It’s their pain — both physical and mental — that draws them together throughout their lives.
It’s the second production this year for commonplacetheatre, a not-for-profit local theatre company. It follows the success of 4.48 Psychosis, which ran in October 2015.
Artistic director and founder Chantel Martin says the beauty and complexity of the story drew her to the production. 
“The show is very challenging from both a design perspective and an acting perspective,” Martin said. “The actors have to bounce back and forth between ages and we had to create a fluid world that weaves between all these ages.”
The story is broken into eight non-sequential encounters between Doug and Kayleen. Each scene follows an interlude during which the actors change costumes and apply fake injuries, taken from boxes labelled with ages ranging from eight to 38. 
Doug and Kayleen meet in their school nurse’s office when they’re eight years old. Kayleen likes the quiet, while Doug is being treated after he rides a bike off a roof. They are endearingly rude to one another — Kayleen is disgusted by Doug’s stupidity — and they become curious and fidgety in each 
other’s presence.  
The narrative moves back and forth between the few moments Doug and Kayleen have shared. As they get older, Kayleen and Doug remain playful and rude, but their tone becomes increasingly serious. Their emotions are underlined with desire despite the suffering that keeps them apart.
Using boxes was an inventive way to set up the play’s many sections. The actors’ ability to transform their tone and body language on command made the jumps between scenes feel effortless.
Sitting in The Box at H’art Centre, the audience becomes part of the intimate world of the characters. 
The small space lined with black curtains pulls you into private and painful moments that feel almost uncomfortably authentic. Eerie music and dramatic lighting highlight intense emotions of loss and longing, and it’s impossible to look away.   
“Audiences should watch the show and reflect on the relationships that they’ve had,” Martin said. “Where they’ve gone wrong, where they’ve gone right and where they’ve misconnected.”
The back curtain is pulled away in the final scene, revealing a wall of mirrors. As Doug and Kayleen sit facing the mirrors, the audience watches their reflections and see themselves in the background. 
For the first time, the spectators are given a chance to reflect on their lives along with the characters, giving the play a meaningful and personal tone.
Gruesome Playground Injuries was a heartbreaking and compelling production exploring the wounds we inflict upon ourselves, and the bonds that can heal them.  

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