The simplest things are the most difficult. When your options are limited, when there are only so many choices to make, one misstep is a glaring note of dissonance. Little mistakes are comparatively easy to hide in an epic extravaganza. In something like a plain roast chicken or an ikebana arrangement, perfection is more of a challenge but also more of a triumph.
That's one of the alluring things about iTheatre's current production of Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph, who also wrote Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
There are only two characters in the play, people you'd probably consider ordinary, average, obscure, working-class people; it's mostly about their lives and relationship, and the settings and action are far from exotic. So what's left for the company to play with is severely circumscribed, in a way -- but the microfocus opens up a world of telling detail that's lovingly executed, and it's fun to watch.
We meet Doug (Peter Ross Stephens) and Kayleen (Kristina Rogers) as 8-year-olds in their Catholic school nurse's office. Each of the seven successive scenes takes place either 15 years after or 10 years before the previous one (e.g., then the two friends are 23, then they're 13, then they're 28, etc.). This device is what leaves me a bit put out with playwright Joseph; all it seemed to supply was a bit of manufactured suspense -- i.e., things that would have been clear, had they unfolded in chronological order, take a little longer to sort out. Though I've seen a lot of scripts in which that's a clever and functional element, what it felt like here was just a trick.
However, the production deftly overcomes that little pair of literary handcuffs by excelling in other ways. The intervals between scenes are written as breaks during which we watch the actors change costumes, adjust makeup, move furniture, and apply and remove the injuries of the title. After each scene-ending blackout, the lights restore to find Doug and Kayleen dancing together for a moment to a pop song appropriate to the era we've leaving, and then Stephens and Rogers silently work to prepare for the next scene.
These transitions are meant to be experienced and to have meaning. Although they aren't rushed, there's no fumbling or ambiguity, thanks to co-designers Christopher Haines and director Michael Traylor (who also helmed the successful Bug and The Play About the Baby for iTC). A set of school-gym-style lockers lines the upstage wall, with small dressing tables in the center. Every sock, hair scrunchie, bed pillow, and swig of water is accounted for. It's kind of like dysfunctional romance as boot camp.
Adding to the battlefield metaphor is the floor of the stage, which resembles the center of a basketball court. It takes a while to realize it's not meant to be literal -- although the characters are in school for many of the scenes, you don't usually put beds in the gym except during a natural disaster (another nicely subtle symbol, by the way), and even the scene that takes place during a middle-school formal dance takes place in the nurse's office.
This framework of evocative but understated design is a wonderful place (a playground!) for Stephens and Rogers (who was one of the awesome stars of last year's Matt & Ben) to go through their paces as performers. They fill in what the script leaves unspoken about their long, powerful friendship, stained around the edges with the accidental blood of thwarted love.
Doug is an open wound, as it were -- he seems to keep little to himself, a tendency that becomes more and more literal as the years pass. Kayleen can't decide whether he's accident-prone or stupid, while she's a nervous ball of neglected self-loathing.
Rogers' task as an actor here is a tough one -- my Overeducated Friend thought her portrayal lacked dimension, and I can see why -- but I checked on published reviews of several different productions of Gruesome Playground Injuries and found that all the actresses were accused of playing Kayleen with insufficient dimension. People like Kayleen are like rolled-up hedgehogs. It's natural to like Doug more as you observe his vulnerable, relentless search for her softness, and Stephens brings a well-modulated, puppyish yet virile tenacity to the role.
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You should also know that there's plenty of humor and cuteness in the show. It's as sneaky and inevitable as the rest of the goings-on.
Gruesome Playground Injuries continues through Saturday, June 2, on the Kax Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Click here to buy iTheatre Collaborative tickets ($16 in advance, $20 at the door), or call 602-347-1071.