Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011

Romance, Scars Pain and Love

Youngblood Theatre’s GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Youngblood Theatre opened its first of two August shows last night. Rajiv Joseph’s intimate two-person romantic drama Gruesome Playground Injuries is being staged at UWM’s Kenilworth Studio Theatre, Rob Maass and Tess Cinpinski play Doug and Kayleen—two people who meet in a school nurse’s office at the age of 8 and keep running into each other through the attraction of injury, sympathy and genuine, if somewhat uneven love and concern for each other.

Playwright Ravij Joseph plays the two characters as solid opposites. Doug is very aggressive and extroverted. He externalizes everything and tries to make every emotion resonate in a very physical way. Hence, he ends up getting injured a lot. Kayleen internalizes everything, does not allow herself to connect with his romantic advances easily. As a result of internalizing things, she has stomach problems and various other retentive issues.

The dichotomy of the two characters is very, very delicate, If it were to be played-up too much the characters would feel more like stereotypes. Thankfully, Maass and  Cinpinski under the direction of Benjamin James Wilson steer solidly clear of flat stereotypes. Previous productions have been criticized for having a romantic pair connect almost exclusively through their injuries and agonies. To paraphrase Moorcock, wounds are all they’re made of. While there is a LOT of discussion of injury and illness, I didn’t really feel a shallowness in the Youngblood production. Though there is a lot of time spent in hospital scenes and the whole fascination with injury, but at the heart of it there are two characters trying to connect up in the only way they know how—and that happens to involve some pretty serious injuries. Cinpinski and Maas render enough emotional details beyond the dialogue to give an audience a feeling of something more.

Some of the staging here aids Cinpinski and Maas. The play runs through a course of 8 very staccato scenes that run through something like 90 minutes with no intermission. The scenic designer Evan Crain did an impressive job of coming up with something that’s both stylish and pragmatic for simple scene changes, often involving one or two small beds that pull out of a larger structure with two doors. Wilson has them making costume changes in plain sight while suitably moody music plays . . . as the actors settle-into their roles, we see the two actors shooting occasional glances at each other. We see some of what may have been going on between the characters between the scenes as the both of them go through the routine of the costume change.

The play coasts somewhat nonlinearly through a series of scenes that mark the major turning points in the lives of these two people. The way Wilson stages the play, we get a feeling for what’s going on beyond the stage in a remarkably concise way.

In the role of Kayleen, Cinpinski holds a certain amount of emotional exhaustion that fits the character well. That exhaustion is punctuated by genuine concern for Doug, fear and a certain amount of intensely bitter pessimism. It’s a touching performance. There are moments where the character would’ve been better served aesthetically by a sharper modulation between weariness and frustration. Certain lines lie pretty flat in the course of the show, but that exhaustion feels impressively organic. An increased modulation between--say anger, frustration and exhaustion between the lines may have felt better, but it would’ve come across as being much less natural. It wouldn’t’ve seemed as real. The big premium on this staging was to ensure that the audience could identify these people as very emotionally real people. In light of this, Cinpinski’s performance was smartly executed.

In the role of Doug, Maas plays aggression against passion and love. Maas treads a very fine line between extremes. It’s difficult not to identify with his frustration. He’s constantly throwing himself at this woman and she seems incapable of reciprocating that energy due to her tendency to internalize things. She's not be nearly as expressive as she needs to be to truly connect with him. His only way to connect up with her is through her coming to his side when he is injured. And as she seems to be getting further and further away from him, his injuries seem to get worse and worse. There seems to be some vague implication that he’s deliberately being careless in the interest of hurting himself to be with her. Maas plays the aggressive action in a way that doesn’t make him come across as a jerk, which is a tremendous success on his part. The character’s passion and frustration are a good portion of the underlying premise of the play. In a way, Maass is playing a hero here . . . and he’s playing it very, very well.  

It’s interesting that director Benjamin James Wilson had made the comment that he didn’t feel as though much of the dialogue was not real specific to a certain era. It’s a play that spans a few decades, but Wilson felt that it was pop culturally ambiguous, speaking more to universals about relationships to everybody than the condition of any one generation. 

 I agree with him for the most part, but for me there DID seem to be a subtle, but distinct suggestion of specific decades in the script. Set when the two characters were 6 years old, the first scene mentions that Doug got an injury while trying to do an Evel Knievel-style stunt off the school roof—a reference that would’ve pegged it as the late ‘70’s. (Roughly coinciding with the author's age at the time.) A couple of scenes later, the couple meet as 13 year olds at a dance. There’s a reference to break dancing that would’ve been right at home seven years later in the mid-1980’s. It all seems pretty specific to me, but it's a subtle distinction and not nearly as exaggerated and overpowering as it could've been. This IS about two people, after all. 

The lack of era style-consciousness in the production wasn’t at all a distraction for me, though. Wilson did a really good job of playing-up the universals. Every element of production plays-up period ambiguity from the set to the Eleanor Cotey costuming to the Loren Watson sound design. It’s nice to see the edge taken off the era.

That being said, the focus on two people unable to connect-up through anything NOT involving some kind of serious injury speaks to an increasing lack of person-to-person connection in a modern world—a theme that is very specific to NOW. It’s a theme that’s been well-explored in the past decade or so by a number of authors from Generation X. It’s nice to see that make it to the stage courtesy of a playwright who comes from the generation as well.

Youngblood’s production of Gruesome Playground Injuries runs through August 27th at the Kenilworth Studio Theatre on 1925 East Kenilworth Place. For reservations, contact Brown Paper Tickets .com

 

 

 

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