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By Rajiv Joseph

Second Thought Theatre

Directed by Joel Ferrell
Miranda Parham – Assistant Director
Bob Lavallee – Scenic Design
Jennifer Ables – Costume Design
Alyssa Humphries and Travis Watson – Lighting Design
John M. Flores – Sound Design
Drew Wall – Properties Design/Production Manager
Christopher Eastland – Stage Manager

Jessica Renee Russell – Kayleen
Montgomery Sutton - Doug

Reviewed Performance: 6/13/2013

Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Have you ever walked into a vast room of a museum or art gallery, void of anything except a massive object of unknown origin – maybe metal, wood, paper mache – and wondered, “Oh my g-o-d, what is that?”

So you stand there, and little by little you start to dissect it, focusing on it, and then are finally able to decipher what it is, even if you still haven’t figured out the why. That image describes both Second Thought Theatre’s opening set and their interpretation of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. An emotional, heavy-handed one-act , the play vividly shows how love, heartache, hurt, neglect and injuries can stack up and barricade two people from each other, yet are the very things that allow them to connect.

Gruesome Playground Injuries travels rapidly through 30 years and the oddly humorous, calamitous relationship between Kayleen and Doug first meet in their elementary school nurse’s clinic, suffering from injuries both internal and external. The two meet again and again over the years, in non-chronological five year segments, piling up continual accidents and injuries that becomes their catalyst, their connection.

Visually illustrating the pile up that is these two people’s lives; Scenic Designer Bob Lavallee first stripped STT’s black box theatre to their black and grey walls, the building’s exit doors fully exposed. For me, that would symbolically come into play later on.

Staged in the round with “no place in particular” creamy beige linoleum tiles as flooring, he stacked high the kinds of utilitarian objects one would expect to find and need in times of crisis – wheelchair, hospital bed, gurney, and two contemporary upholstered benches that later on served as places to lie down or wait. The actors quickly took apart the pile, and during each scene, moved or removed the pieces for each encounter, each new injury.

As instructed by the playwright, the actors remained in view the entire time so on opposite sides of the stage were two vanity tables, each with the implements needed to change hairstyle, makeup and bandages as required for each time shift. Each mirror was cracked in several places, a visual of damaged lives, and like the number on a birthday card, each wrote their age for the upcoming scene, a visual of time passing.

Jennifer Ables costumed the two in layers of generic casual clothing.

High boots, jeans, denim jackets and sports shoes easily overlapped into the three decades. The clothes hung from the ceiling on long chains for quick changes. Using mainly blacks and grays, the brightest, richest color onstage was the blood on Kayleen and Doug from each new injury.

Lighting was also minimalistic, both Alyssa Humphries and Travis Watson designing two separate visuals, florescent tube panels hanging directing above and underneath the vanity tables for the sterile, starkness of hospital room, clinic or nurse’s office, and unfiltered or blue-gelled dim lighting for more personal spaces such as a bedroom or funeral home. The contrasts were startling and made their point.

Music was an integral part of this production of Gruesome Playground Injuries and John M. Flores’ sound design was exceptional in creating both the shifts in time and the influences the music of those shifts had on the characters. As the play was written in 2009, Flores went back to place each song accordingly and gradually added both pop and all the angry, angst-driven songs that were the center stone for the youth of each decade.

When you enter the theatre to Tori Amos’ “Crucify Myself”, then later hear “Leaving my cuts, leaving my burns. . . I am in pain I am in love” from Indigo Girls’ “Blood and Fire”, well you kinda know what you’re getting into. Music boomed from two large speakers placed behind each vanity, literally vibrating the audience seating and encompassing the scenes between the scenes in radiant sensory overdrive.

Kayleen and Doug are two eight year olds. She prefers the dark, quiet nurse’s office and so has a propensity for stomachaches while his tendencies are more the accident-prone kind, leaving “honor wounds” he relishes showing. They resemble two meteor-like objects in the vastness of the universal skies that, in all likelihood, would never ever intersect, and yet they do and their collision is catastrophic.

In several of his plays, Rajiv Joseph connects to the damaged child in all of us, the ones easily bruised. He twists the use of dialogue and action around in his script, allowing the audience to laugh during some scenes, but also to match the horror and humor one for one. In the play, eight-year-old Kayleen asks, “Does it hurt?” to which Doug grins and says, “Yeah!” Many years later and in her most sexual moment Kayleen inquires, “Do you want to touch my scar?”

These and others left the audience in a state of imbalance, thinking, “Should I really be laughing at this, at two people who are intent on destroying themselves?” In good form, neither Joseph nor director Joel Ferrell indicated whether Kayleen and Doug are placing injury upon injury on themselves consciously or subconsciously. Leaving the choice to the audience made the humor sharper, the two’s relationship deeper and the human condition more mysterious.

Ferrell wisely rehearsed the play in chronological order for the actors to more easily transition from age to age, gathering information to better position their place within the relationship. When performed as written, other than clothing or hairstyle change, there were no visual indications of age change so the actors had to recall the experiences of their characters that were formed in rehearsal. Portraying someone from eight to thirty eight, out of sequence, with little visual effects, would challenge any actor and both handled the task well.

Jessica Renee Russell played Kayleen, whose life is accentuated by an absent mother and non-caring father. As such, she is hyper-sensitive, scornful and filled with worldly and self-contempt. Joseph’s words keep Kayleen distant and Russell aligned her acting in the same direction. Frequently using an angry vocal quality for Kayleen often made her toxic to the audience but I kept listening for the sadness within, the anxiety of Kayleen’s decisions, the frightened little girl inside, and too many times she was missing. To begin at such a highly-charged level left Russell with no place to go, vocally and emotionally. Though Russell garnered a more caring young woman coming to terms with herself at the end, I wished for more lows and highs, more physical and emotional depth in age, more ways for audience redemption.

Doug was played by Montgomery Sutton, whose whole body reflected the boy/man yet to grow up. He reached back into his past, or imagined an age he’s yet to reach, to gather all the little physical and mental quirks that a young show off or a young man deep in unrequited love exudes. And when Sutton’s actual age temporarily brought you out of the age he was playing, all you had to do was look into his eyes, and it was there. Watching Sutton shift through whole decades was a master lesson in character arc development.

At the talk back after the performance, Ferrell and Co-Artistic Director Steven Walters spoke of stripping back the production to only the essentials. Thus the bare walls and exposed exit. For me, that exit indicated uncertain freedom. Yes, it was the way out but what if the alarm went off once you opened the door? The thought of that kept me thinking of the parallels between it and Kayleen and Doug’s trapped relationship.

During the talk they also said that each time they would add some “theatre”, it went wrong or did not work. I am glad though that Ferrell kept a bit of extra theatricality in the piece, having each of the actors stare at the other after readying for the next scene as if they were boxers sizing each other up before the next round.

Like that massive art piece, it is hard to dissect Gruesome Playground Injuries – the director and actors said so, and I would tend to agree. It is an inventive, bizarre reflection of two people’s lives and friendship.

Towards the end of the play, and through the reflection of one of the mirrors, I saw both an actor and a section of the audience looking back at me. It was then I realized we were all looking at each other onstage. Each of us with a relationship, past or present, that by all rights should never have existed, that we should not have had, but it did and we still do. To dissect the play is paramount to dissecting ourselves. The experience lies in the closeness of the audience to the actors and the closeness of the characters to us.

In that, there is no need to go beyond the words, no need to judge the characters. The audience has to put great faith in the play’s intent and allow the actors to simply be in the present, moment to moment, age to age. Second Thought Theatre’s production is intense, personal, filled with love, pain, laughter and tears – all the things that make us human.

Second Thought Theatre
Bryant Hall, on the Kalita Humphries Theater campus
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Dallas, TX 75219

Short run through June 29th

Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Monday at 7:30 pm. Additional performance on Sunday, June 16th at 7:30pm is currently sold out but check for availability.

Tickets are $22.50. Pay What You Can performances are both Mondays, June17th and June 24th.

For info & to purchase tix go to www.secon