Blurred movement with hospital bed in background
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph. Image by Sabīne Sietiņa, courtesy of ETL.

ETL: Gruesome Playground Injuries

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Love hurts, and for some people, that’s the point.

Trying to write a one-line introduction to this play has me stumped. “A skeletal outline of common events wrapped up in an uncommon friendship.” That is the closest I could get to describing ETL‘s production of Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph. It opened on 3 March at the Neues Schauspiel Theatre in Lindenau. Although some viewers may be triggered by references to self-harm and non-consensual sex, the play is delightful – both funny and heartbreaking. “Does it hurt?” asks eight-year-old Kayleen when she meets classmate, Doug, in the school sickbay. He rode his bike off the school roof á la Evil Knieval, and she is suffering from stomach pains.

In typical eight-year-old fashion, they solemnly trade war stories and insults.

When a young boy asks a girl (or vice versa), “Can I touch it?”, the “it” in question is usually in an erogenous zone. Not in this play – an open sore of some kind, a cut or graze, or a newly emptied eye socket is what draws Kayleen and Doug into mutual, fascinated exploration. Though their friendship remains, by conventional standards, platonic, these two know that physical agony can be more bonding than sex. Over the next 30 years, we are treated to short glimpses, almost snapshots, of the pair in A&E departments, bedrooms, funeral parlors, and mental hospitals as their paths cross again and again. But they never quite connect, despite a feeling that they might be able to save each other. Doug, in fact, is convinced that Kayleen’s hands have healing powers and indeed, almost convinces her of that.

Despite their sometimes-combative interactions, it becomes clear that there is a deep connection between them. Something that time, tragedy, and the vagaries of life cannot seem to squash. But that connection is sadly not enough in this one-act two-hander. Doug’s parents call him “accident-prone”, but self-harming might better describe someone who climbs telephone poles during thunderstorms and likes playing with fireworks.

Woman hugging man from behind
Victoria Grace Findlay as Kayleen and Daniel Carey as Doug in Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Image by Sabīne Sietiņa, courtesy of ETL.

Where does the border lie between self-harm in its classic form and simple disregard for safety?

What are the reasons for Kayleen’s fragility, underachievement, and inability to commit? We see hints and shadows of it through what she says (and doesn’t say) to Doug over the years. An anti-rom-com, this delicate play is as fragile as its protagonists. Playing the eight scenes, spanning 30 years, in non-chronological order initially felt like a ruse to excuse the need to fill in the gaps. As the play develops, however, one gets the sense that this juxtaposition is intentional. That the playwright wants to keep his audience guessing, to fill in the blanks themselves with reflections from their own lives.

Doug’s irrepressible optimism and cheerful nature come up over and over, regard-
less of Kayleen’s reactions. Kayleen’s constant accusation that Doug is “stupid” could be hurled by a character who never developed much beyond her eight-year-old persona. And yet, they deal with some very traumatic topics, albeit fleetingly. Fortunately, this production struck it lucky: Victoria Grace Findlay and Daniel Carey are actors more than capable of doing the play justice.

 

Woman smoking, man in background
Victoria Grace Findlay as Kayleen and Daniel Carey as Doug in Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Image by Sabīne Sietiņa, courtesy of ETL.

Despite some jitters, both actors connected with the frail humanity of their characters and made us privy to their secrets.

Daniel’s Doug is a combustible mix of goofiness, exuberance, and anger, sometimes peeling aside to reveal the fragility and vulnerability beneath. His body postures and movements change ever so subtly from era to era. If there hadn’t been a running count of their ages in each scene, the audience would still have been able to tell the difference between an eight-year-old’s innocent curiosity and a thirty-eight-year-old’s morbid fascination.

 

Man and woman on stage
Victoria Grace Findlay as Kayleen and Daniel Carey as Doug in Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Image by Sabīne Sietiņa, courtesy of ETL.

 

Victoria is a fine young actor and her moments of personal contemplation are played beautifully. Every once in a while, we could see her thinking about the next scene or line. But those moments were fleeting and she quickly dived back into the torturous paths along which Kayleen thinks.

It is rare to find an actor who is capable of mapping her character’s entire history with a single look.

Direction by William Hightower and Sabīne Sietiņa frames the action sparingly, leaving a lot of room for their actors to find their own way. The set is simple yet effective, with the stage’s revolve mimicking the turning of the years and the cycles that none of us ever really escape.

 

Man and woman kissing on stage
Victoria Grace Findlay as Kayleen and Daniel Carey as Doug in Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Image by Sabīne Sietiņa, courtesy of ETL.

 

Frequent costume changes help to keep the audience oriented in time without being intrusive or heavy-handed, and simple musical interludes punctuate the action. Hats off to the stage team of Liza Koltsova (Stage and Costume Design) and stage managers Letizia Rivera and Peace Bouchier.

As mentioned above, the play explores themes and topics that may be triggering for some audience members, but oh, it’s worth it!

The thoughts it awakened and the feelings it brought up are still with me more than 12 hours later.

Always a sign of a good story, even though, in this case, the ending is not what Hollywood has taught us to expect. If it lasted a minute longer than 80 minutes it would outstay its welcome. But ETL‘s clinical yet tender production acknowledges that. If there is something irritating about all the adolescent angst, the play’s distinctive tone combines with stellar performances to make it startlingly and wonderfully watchable. Definitely worth the time and money. Neues Schauspiel and its cozy pub are the perfect location for a fun night out and will give you lots of opportunity to explore any feelings evoked by the talents on stage.

Gruesome Playground Injuries is showing there on the following dates: 10th, 11th, 12th March 2022.

Go and see it!

 


 

Abstract painting
Gruesome Playground Injuries. Painting by @zappergeck90, courtesy of ETL.

 

English Theatre Leipzig

in association with

Neues Schauspiel Leipzig

Presents

Gruesome Playground Injuries

By Rajiv Joseph

Performed in English

Dates: 10th, 11th & 12th of March, 2022; at 20:00

Venue: The Neues Schauspiel Leipzig, Lützner Str. 29, 04177 Leipzig

Tickets: 14€, reduced price 10€

Tickets available online at: www.neues-schauspiel-leipzig.de, or by telephone at: 0341 927 997 70.

 

Nicola Seaton-Clark is an actress and Head of Project Management at Offstimme, an international voice-over company founded by her husband, Peter. She lives in Leipzig with Peter, their two children, and two cats.

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