Saturday 2 April 2016

Gruesome Playground Injuries a touching tale

From the footlights :  Playwright Rajiv Joseph wrote the title to this play before he concocted even one character, the plot line or a single digit of dialogue whatever. Drinks with an accident-prone friend describing serial injuries over decades led to the title being jotted on a cocktail nappy when friend went to the biffy.

What grabs the eye and ear from the title is the paradox of "play" set against "gruesome". And so it is, betimes, in life. When we laugh so hard we soon start to weep as in the head-to-tummy game of Ha! high schoolers used to play. How other peoples' accidents and pain tend to produce instant gawkers of many passersby. Had "Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thang" not been scooped for a 1973 movie it would work here for sure.

Two young people, Kayleen and Doug, first meet in the Catholic school nurse's office as third graders. They bond, awkwardly. And spend the next 30 years as misfits in co-dependency. He is the often-banged-up broken-boned tooth-missing reckless risk-taker. She is witty and sardonic, but equally broken, a self-injuring soul. That Joseph and the Pacific Theatre team are able to create not just a series of entertaining vignettes but deliver to viewers a believable and abiding friendship-through-wounds is no small achievement.

How it's all put together :  A two-hander, GPI relies on an artificial but purposeful construct by Joseph : from scene-to-scene, forward 15 years, back 10. Eight scenes in all -- two at the characters' mid-point age 23 -- that show them tending to one another's injuries as life's separate journeys take each of them from the nurse's office to hospitals to psych wards to the confines of their bedrooms as their wounds tot up over time. (Ben Brantley of the NYT oh-so-wittily noted "The play is just asking to be retitled 'Same Time, Next Scar'.")

At eight, Doug (Kenton Klassen) has tried an Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon bike-launch attempt off the school roof. His face is smashed. Kayleen (Pippa Johnstone) is seeing the nurse due to non-stop wretching, lit.& fig. : "My mom says it's because I have bad thoughts," she tells Doug. Intrigued by his messed up head, she asks him to lift the gauze so she can touch his wound. This is the first such exercise throughout the play -- the touching of hurt parts -- and it works both physically and metaphorically. Usually in rom-coms "Can I touch it?" refers to an erogenous zone. But these two characters are just friends, or are they? Or perhaps unrequited lovers of pain, his physical, hers psychic. Yes.

In a 2013 interview with Austin, TX's Capital T Theater, this very proposition was put directly to Mr. Joseph : Kayleen and Doug seem to float around that very narrow line of friendship and love. This seems like a very clear choice by you as a playwright. What intrigues you about that line between friendship and being in love? His answer : It's fucked up, frustrating and heartbreaking, and that can usually make for good drama.

For its part, meanwhile, the psychologist's handbook of disease diagnosis known colloquially as the DSM describes "behavioural spin" being "manifested as a continuously reinforced process leading (a person) to engage in masochistic activity, perpetuating itself, and binding the addict to his/her behaviour." Sounds about right here. Also the co-dependency piece. Kayleen is Doug's hands-on angel, he is her priest, perhaps. (In Grade 8 at a Cleveland Catholic middle school in 1987 Rajiv was voted the most likely in his class to take the vow and don the cloth. But he liked girls better than being an altar boy, so no go there.)

What the show brings to the stage : For folks (like me) unaware of Rajiv Joseph, this is a first-rate introduction. The man has a terrific ear for the rhythms, cadences and dynamics of language. His capture of realistic dialogue in turn reveals true sensitivity and empathy for broken hearts and wounded souls without getting country-rock soppy and cloying. Kayleen is forever calling Doug out for all the stupid human tricks he's constantly pulling (on a roof during a lightning storm; up a telephone pole in the rain; gleefully setting off firecrackers, at age 23 -- that results in him symbolically as well as actually blind in one eye) : "You're retarded!" she flings at him. "Hey," he protests, "that's real rude to retarded people." "I'm sorry I offended you," she snaps back.

Their relationship is complex and confusing, like teen-age "practice lovers" who become buddies, best friends, confidantes : part brother-&-sister, part fellow patients, part just two people desperately seeking one another but who can't break through their karmic shields to actually do so.

Which, presumably, is why there are regular multi-year gaps in their various re-connects for two who are supposedly best friends [Note-to-file for Rajiv Joseph : is this genuine-&-realistic in a social media universe?]

Kayleen is mentally ill, suffering repeating and worsening bouts of depression. She's a cutter, uses a box knife. Doug wants to be her break-through, her go-to problem fixer : "I wish I could do to you what you do to me," he tells her. "Do you think we could just pry ourselves out of here and go someplace else?" he asks, as close to a proposal as he'll ever make and she'll ever get. But Kayleen is too scared and wounded to go along. And so Doug, once more, just goes. Along his silly risky sort-of-macho antic way.

Production hi-lights that shine :  For newbies to it like me, Pacific Theatre at the old Chalmers Presbyterian Church on 12th-&-Hemlock is an open stage, some 400 square feet below a north bank of some 75 seats sloping down to it with another 70 or so mirroring back on the south bank.

Thus the actors on the stage are centred between the two flights of seats and are wholly visible at all times. No wings, no escape!

To start each of the eight sequences, they madly grab their costumes from clothes hooks right-&-left and dress as they wipe off the last scene's make-up and daub on this one's.  Bits of tuneful music -- everything from "Time After Time" to "Wrecking Ball" -- play along as backdrop.

Set designer Carolyn Rapanos centres the action on two webbed wooden settees that can be flipped on edge to form a funeral home garden wall or the boards of a hockey rink. Above are 3"-wide strips of torn and tattered hospital gauze criss-crossed and hanging down over them. They reflect the many years of shared wounds -- a tangled web indeed -- a theme that is mimicked in blood-red floor paint below.

Director Chelsea Haberlin continues to pad her increasingly impressive resume of successes with her blocking and stage directions. E.g. the costume changes between scenes required the actors to stay in character, which they did best as the giggly 8-year-olds to kick off the show, then as 38-year-olds for the final scene as a haunting acoustic cover by Charles Kelley of the normally shrill Miley Cyrus pop tune "Wrecking Ball" rains down on them mournfully. They exchange these pained vows that betray love regardless : "I can't be the reason you're alive" -&- "I'm sorry for our whole life right now." Sensing their mutual losses over time, they end the show recalling how as 13-year-olds they greeted dawn's early light and morning's blue skies after an all-nighter on the St. Mary Margaret School's playground swings. Touching for sure.

Acting pin-spots :  Both Pippa Johnstone and Kenton Klassen carry their characters' weight with equal finesse and nuance, albeit nearly 100% opposite in temperament. Their turns as 8- and 13-year-olds were especially a delight in the hoppy-jumpy nervous twitchery of those years. The joint vomit scene was a comic highlight no question.

In Scene 4, (age 28) Kayleen's monologue to Doug as he lies there in a coma after the lightning strike was as poignant as it was profane, Kayleen a loving effing angel anxiously and compulsively moisturizing her hands as she learns of his new fiancee Elaine. She recalls his outright protestation of love to her at her father's funeral 10 years back : "You can't marry that girl, Doug," she addresses him, unconscious. "What about me? All that stuff you told me at the funeral about 'The 10 top things anyone's done for me were by you...!' Well, I'm going away and you're going to have to come looking for me again," she says. I utterly teared up.

For his part, Klassen masters a goofy jock laugh that underscored each and every tale of derring-do gone grossly awry. From Scene 1 through Scene 7. Scene 8 found Doug pensive, resistant, resigned. A bittersweet wrap-up scene indeed.  

(BLR ed. note : Personally I thought Mr. Joseph's character graduation -- from mild-mannered risk-taker Doug with an achilles tendon issue to a cane-assisted flubby insurance guy to wheelchair paraplegic atop a Zamboni especially accommodated for him at play's end -- all this a bit over-the-top in character detail design I think. But that is mere quibble. See Addendum. Albeit not a Christian any longer, I concur with Artistic Director Reed's take on this script.)

Who gonna like :  As stated above, Rajiv Joseph is a playwright to pay attention to. Small-stage fans who like character studies done with wit and humour while exploring contemporary angst and neurosis sub-themes will enjoy this show as much as the 100+ Saturday matinee patrons did today. The complexity of people reaching out to one another, however haltingly and tentatively, is always a touching bit of live theatre to witness. Particularly when the stage characters the playwright crafted are backed up by actors who fully understand and embrace their roles. This is just such a performance.  

Particulars : Presented by Pacific Theatre.  At the Pacific Theatre stage, 12th & Hemlock.  Through April 16th. Run-time 95 minutes, no intermission.  Schedule information & tickets via Pacific Theatre or by phoning the box office @ 604.731.5518.

Production Crew : Written by Rajiv Joseph.  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Carolyn Rapanos.  Lighting Designer Phil Miguel.  Sound Designer Chris Adams.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier. Stage Manager Shelby Bushell.  Production Manager Phil Miguel.  Technical Director Cougar Basi. 

Performers :  Pippa Johnstone.  Kenton Klassen. 

Addendum : From the program "A Note from the Artistic Director" :

This play? Why on earth?

Because Kenton and Pippa are in it. They staged it as their final [Pacific Theatre] apprentice project, they were terrific, and I figured more people needed to see them in it...

Because [it's] the best play title ever. Definitely the truest title : if you don't like the title, you won't like the play.

Because I really do love this play. Usually I go for story-driven scripts, rising action, this leads to that, reversals, all that dramaturgical stuff. This isn't that. Still it works for me : I'm drawn in, compelled, moved, fascinated.

And because...whether every viewer will see it this way or not, I find something spiritual in this play, something very close to the heart of my faith as a Christian. Two people who've been dealt really bad hands, two outsiders...the last, the least, the lost -- who suffer and fail a lot, who fall pretty low and don't even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. Who somehow still manage to pull each other up. They've got pretty nearly nothing except a remarkable love for each other. And somehow that seems to be enough.

Maybe this play isn't religious, or even spiritual -- or maybe it's gospel. I don't know. Your mileage [sic] may vary, but I do know this : I find myself stirred in the same way I'm stirred by Easter, or friendship, or a small act of kindness or sacrifice.

I also think it's really funny. But maybe that's just me.

Ron Reed, Artistic Director, Pacific Theatre


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