A nontraditional play, in a nontraditional setting, for a nontraditional world.
He rode his bike off the school roof. She has issues with her stomach. Doug (Rob Schreiner) and Kayleen (Solana Ramírez-García) meet in their school nurse’s office in 1988, which sets them on a journey that weaves in and out of hospital rooms and mental institutions for the next 30 years.
The Constructivists’ performance of Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph has the audience wondering why human beings hurt themselves, along with the ones they love.
This isn’t a traditional show by any means: It lacks an intermission. The actors change costumes and apply makeup right on stage. The non-chronological storyline has the actors playing a wide range of ages. But being nontraditional works. The structure allows the story to bring out a host of modern problems for its characters to grapple with: broken families, self-injury and regrets, to name a few. Form and content have to mirror each other, and it does in Gruesome Playground Injuries.
A nontraditional play also needs a nontraditional space, and that’s what the Underground Collaborative (UC) gives. Tucked away on the lower level of the Shops of Grand Avenue, the UC has everything from an art gallery to a recording studio to the Arcade Theater (which is equipped with a bar for those who like to have a beer as they watch a show).
The play’s opening scene has Doug and Kayleen, still children in 1988, talking about how they both ended up in the nurse’s office. The next scene jumps to 2003: Doug blows out his eye playing with fireworks on the night of Kayleen’s father’s funeral. While the jump in time seems a bit jarring, it’s not as surprising as the first costume change that comes directly before. By the third or fourth time the actors undress on stage and apply the next scene’s wounds, the entire sequence seems just as rehearsed as the rest of the play. Soon, it becomes a guessing game to figure out where and in what decade the story will pick up next.
What was most impressive about the performance was the actors’ abilities to switch between various characters’ ages so fluently – from children in one scene to mature adults in the next – and Ramírez-García and Schreiner play each age in a convincing manner. Their performances offer clear distinctions between their characters as children and angsty teenagers, versus young adults or nearing middle age.
Director Jaimelyn Gray delivers the audience pain, both physical and mental, with only a set of wooden boxes, a chair, a bench and a chalkboard that marks the year throughout. From the background music (both in and between scenes), to the emotion from the actors, the play conveys a large emotional resonance with very little to work with beyond their acting talents.
Go See It: This limited-run show is the product of The Constructivists, a new professional non-equity theater company in Milwaukee. Gruesome Playground Injuries will be showing at The Underground Collaborative at 7:30 on Feb. 2 and 3, along with a 2 p.m. matinee on Feb. 3 and a special “Thank You” meet-and-greet with The Constructivists on Feb. 4 at 5 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased online or by calling The Constructivists’ box office (414-858-6874). Pre-sale tickets are $15, or $18 at the door.