Kenton Klassen, Pippa Johnstone

Pulitzer finalist playwright Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries peers into the lives of two people bonded together by a reciprocal need for unnecessary misery. An undercurrent of romance runs through their atypical friendship. The one-act, 90-minute play is presented as snippets of their encounters over the span of 30 years and is scattered in a non-linear chronology, much like a jigsaw puzzle. In the end however, you’re left wondering where the missing pieces went.

A withdrawn Kayleen (Pippa Johnstone) and an indefatigable Doug (Kenton Klassen) first meet at the age of eight in their Catholic school’s nurse’s office. Kayleen merely has an upset stomach, however Doug’s nearly cracked his head open by riding his bicycle off the roof in an attempt to impersonate American daredevil Evel Knievel. Further scenes show select conversations at ages 13, 18, 23, 28, 33 — and finally at 38. 

Kenton Klassen, Pippa Johnstone

After the first few meetings, the theme appears repetitive: Doug has physically hurt himself in some manner and needs Kayleen to “heal” him; Kayleen’s injuries are more of a psychological nature and needs Doug to reassure her. 

From an emergency room to a sanitarium to a funeral home, neither character can break out of their self-imposed cookie cutter roles. Both parties navigate the land mines of their lives with no intention of avoiding the bombs, yet their liaison is fraught with frustration as they would rather hurt themselves in all mannerisms than risk opening up to intimacy. 

The haphazard arrangement of scenes mirrors the characters’ chaotic psyche. Episodes with caustic dialogue by a jaded Kayleen and an older Doug are juxtaposed with sketches presenting the pair in childhood naïveté. Joseph’s knack for authentic dialogue is evident throughout his work. The dark subject matter is laced with raw moments of dark, sardonic humor, which become more poignant as the aging duo dances ever more intimately with the specter of death. However, these attempts to provide more character depth and affinity are botched by the repetitive confines of each act. 

Kenton Klassen, Pippa Johnstone

The scenes only graze the surface ego of Doug and Kayleen but provide no illustrative substance into the cause of their discontent. The audience can only observe the encounters between the pair but little is elaborated on about their lives beyond the infirmary walls. 

What are the causes for Kayleen’s depression? Does she suffer from the generic banalities of a troubled family life? Why is Doug such a madcap thrill-seeker? Does he yearn for the attentions of a blasé mother? What finally becomes of their restlessness? As the jigsaw of their lives agglomerate with each revealing episode, the anchoring corner fragments remain forever absent.

It may be difficult to shift through the eight disjointed scenes in the play, however director Chelsea Haberlin achieves this effortlessly by using the actors’ onstage costume changes to predicate the transitions. Garments designed by Christopher David Gauthier dangle on racks at opposite sides of Carolyn Rapanos’ bandage draped, alley-style stage.

A couple of utilitarian, multi-purpose benches and lighting (Phil Miguel) complete the elemental stage. Johnstone and Klassen make appropriate playful or angry gestures across the room and allude intimacy by either applying make-up or dressing one other. Their transformations are accompanied by an aptly selected array of music by sound designer Chris Adams

Not only are the tunes well-suited to each act, but Adams has inventively chosen to use cover versions instead of the original songs. From Time After Time to Wrecking Ball, the exploitation of other people’s songs attempts to supply further depth into the emotional veneer of the characters. 

Pippa Johnstone, Kenton Klassen

The only non-cover melody was Milli Vanilli’s Girl You Know It’s True, and we don’t need a reminder about that lip-synching fiasco! The synchrony of talent is adeptly managed by Shelby Bushell and Charlie Mitchell. One distracting feature of this production was the annoying scene introductions. As the actors address the audience, they are jerked out of their already-fledging personas, negating any solemnity established from the preceding scene. 

Fledglings themselves, recent graduates, Johnstone and Klassen yielded stellar performances as they struggled opposite one another under a restrictive dramatic structure. Johnstone layered her mellow voice with detached sarcasm and obscured despair. Klassen’s portrayal of the hopeful but injury-prone Doug is at times tragic to watch because the character cannot escape his ineludible accidents. However, since the play spans 30 years, it’s nearly impossible for even seasoned adult actors to accurately depict characters at either end of the age spectrum. 

Joseph’s reflective two-player script is suited for the cozy confines of Pacific Theatre where audiences can more closely engage with the characters. Although its potential is never fully manifested, the premise is nonetheless an intriguing study about inconstant souls in an intransigent world. Gruesome Playground Injuries continues at the Pacific Theatre on Wednesdays to Saturdays through July 12

Photos by Matt Reznek.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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