Dallas — Flexible Grey Theatre Company’s superb production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries opened Wednesday evening in the basement performance space of Arts Mission Oak Cliff, a repurposed church in the Winnetka Heights neighborhood of Oak Cliff, just off Twelfth Street.
Over the course of 75 minutes, the play follows the complicated relationship between misfits Kayleen and Doug, who first find each other in a nurse’s office of an elementary school when they’re eight years old. Over the ensuing three decades, they share everything, from kisses and a tendency to self-destruct to a trashcan to throw up in. The two somehow manage to find their way back to each other despite long bouts of separation. What we see across the narrative arc is the complex and realistic processing of various rites of passage (first kiss, school dance, family death, college, and jobs) that also bond them together.
Scene changes take place at a leisurely pace. Although the timeline of the plot spans 30 years, the scenes do not unfold chronologically. Instead, we consistently jump 15 years in the future and back 10, so that the real sequence of events is assembled only in the audience’s mind at the end.
It is a joy to watch Tatiana Lucia Gantt play Kayleen. Her ability to conjure a full-fledged character, one with her own natural cadence, movement, and expression, easily captivates the audience. Equally believable and pleasurable is Christopher Lew’s “accident-prone” Doug. Both actors excel at nuanced interpretation and comic timing.
The shifts in age are played as changes in energy level, which makes Scene 6, when Kayleen has been hospitalized and heavily sedated after attempting suicide, and Scene 8, when wheelchair-bound Doug refuses Kayleen’s touch, all the more tragic. But the actors do more than just calibrate their energy to play different ages. There are also subtle shifts in their voices and posture that indicate not only time’s passage but also the emotional weight of each scene.
At the end of the play, despite the years that have transpired, we still get to see the eight-year-old children beneath the physical and emotional scars, making Gruesome Playground Injuries, despite its dabbling in the crudeness of vomit humor and wallowing in the gloom of self-destruction, ultimately an uplifting experience.
The strength of the acting successfully carries the tensions of the scenes and between the characters through what would otherwise be the lull of transitions between the eight scenes that make up the play. There’s no real down time. The unfolding drama keeps the audience engaged, even when the lights are dimmed and there’s no discernable action taking place onstage.
Flexible Grey’s founder Seth Johnson directs this compelling show with a skilled cast and creative technical elements. Because of the space, blocking sometimes necessitates that an actor sit on the floor, which makes it difficult for the audience to see all of the action all of the time. But that’s the extent of any criticism.
With Doug’s wounds, makeup designer Alejandra Bucio’s work begins with a high gross-out factor, which the script calls for, but as the play progresses, the wounds get deeper and less visible. The injuries become more metaphoric but no less gruesome once the characters move from the school playground to adulthood.
The production’s lighting and sound design are remarkably effective, especially considering the limited resources available at the space. With little more than on/off light-switch control over three sets of lights (a set of institutional fluorescent lights and what appears to be two different sets of halogen track lights), Sloan Pasion’s lighting design surprises with its ability to find the right combination and sequence of combinations to track the play’s emotional and physical trajectory. The uncredited sound design during scene transitions includes songs played at variable speeds—a creative solution that evokes the shifts in time and emotion taking place in the transitory spaces of the characters’ lives. Alyssa Cavazos’ movement choreography and Stephen Steele’s intimacy direction contribute to the production’s poignancy and energy.
Though the play premiered in 2009 in Houston (and has been staged twice in North Texas, by Sundown Collaborative Theatre and Second Thought Theatre, both in 2013), some of Rajiv Joseph’s language already may seem dated or inappropriate, especially the overuse of “retarded.” It’s surprising how one’s sensitivity to that word can change in only 10 years.
Flexible Grey Theatre Company’s mission is to promote and further the LBGTQ+ community, as well as women and minorities. Their aim is to also make it possible for anyone to see their shows, so they have a strict pay-what-you-can policy. There is only one more performance before their short run of the funny and charming Gruesome Playground Injuries ends. See it with someone you love.