Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gruesome Playground Injuries

Ensemble’s GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES good, but not all it could be

Last year Ensemble Theatre produced playwright Rajiv Joseph’s HUCK AND HOLDEN. It was filled with humor and creative storytelling. Those attending Ensemble’s newest venture into Joseph’s work, GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES, will experience the same type of storytelling, but will probably find the production less satisfying.

Joseph, who was born and raised in the Cleveland area, is a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and wrote the third season of TV’s NURSE JACKIE. He is the author of BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, which ran last year on Broadway, and starred Robin Williams.

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES is a different kind of love story that examines the interlocking lives of two damaged people who are in psychological agony. We first meet the duo as eight-year olds in a parochial school infirmary. Kayleen is supposedly there because of a stomach ache. Doug has just ridden his bike off the roof of the school, resulting in numerous physical injuries. Before the 30 years of the play’s actions are over, the duo manages to physically slice, bloody, bruise and/or mutilate most of their bodies. In addition, they become more and more psychological invalids.

The obvious question is why they self-abuse. Kayleen, we find out, as the script plays out in various hospital rooms, a funeral parlor, and a mental institution, is the product of an emotionally absent father, has been abandoned at an early age by her mother, and has no friends. A depressive, she turns to hypochondria, self mutilation, and self-pity as her defense.

Doug, on the surface, seems like a daredevil, with little instinct control. In fact, though he comes from a positive home environment, he is hyperactive and lacking in both intellectual and social skills.

We see snippets of their togetherness, in non-chronological scenes, at ages 8, 23, 13, 28, 33, 23 and 38. We note that the duo’s relationship, though it remains mostly platonic, is filled with emotionally bonding need. These lost souls desperately need each other, yet never commit to a lasting relationship. Each bounces from person to person, but always returning, after a period of separation, for the healing that only they can provide for the other.

Even at the play’s ending, which caught many in the audience by surprise, there is a non-conclusion to their relationship. They remain floating in tortured space, needing each other, not fully understanding why, and probably popping up in each other’s lives sometime in the future.

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, though interesting, often drags. Much of the stage time is spent watching each character change makeup to fit the injury or age they are about to present, or make complete wardrobe alterations. Thus, the actual time when we are hearing dialogue is limited. The long changing time slows down the flow.

It could be argued that there is a need for us to watch as each heals, removes the blood and signs of their injuries, but, in reality the healing is only superficial. Unfortunately, some of the impact of that message is lost due to the length of the transitions.

The acting is strong. Celeste Cosentino is filled with angst as the depressed Kayleen. She leads us on a path through her tortured life, deflecting true feelings by ranting, “shut up” and “you’re retarded” to protect herself from emotionally bonding with Doug. We clearly see she recognizes that Doug is the only person in her life who gives her any meaningful attention, the only human who is human to her.

Dan Folino, he of fawn eyes and mobile body, transitions from 8-year old to crippled 38-year old, with visual clarity. At times, there is some over-acting, but, in general, he is believable. By the end, his battered body becomes a clear symbol of the failed life of the duo, the crumpled mass of wasted humanity.

In addition to the constant makeup and clothing changes, the shifting of rectangle and cube blocks that are used to create the set, becomes tedious. All that movement is not needed. Like the clothing, suggestions of location might have sped up the flow and helped to hold the audience’s attention.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble Theatre again takes on a Rajiv Joseph script. Though, due to some staging decisions, it is not as audience engaging as it could be, GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES is a thought provoking concept, that is filled with pathos.