ITJA REVIEWS – ROUND ONE. Students in the institute for theatre journalism and advocacy share their reviews from the first day of Festival 50. Their assignment was to write a 500-word review of one of the opening productions. Their reviews are posted alphabetically. Seven submitted their reviews on “Gruesome Playground Injuries.”
‘Gruesome’s’ Gorgeous and Grueling Rollercoaster
by Matthew Briggs, University of Central Missouri
Love. Everyone longs to receive affection from another, but how far will one go to obtain this perpetual desire for meaningful connection? In Rajiv Joseph’s playfully dark drama “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” produced by Johnson County Community College and directed by Beate Pettigrew, love is a sensitive cycle of confusion and pain, seizing hearts tirelessly hunting for the truth. While complex and exhausting, this sensation irradiates this rousing play filled with sharp comedy and heart-pounding moments and delivered by a breathtakingly vigorous company.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” follows a couple’s bittersweet relationship as it evolves in a series a vignette’s spanning thirty years. Along the way Doug, a mischievous adrenaline junky and Kayleen, an apprehensive traditionalist, obtain arduous physical and emotional injuries which complicate the status of their peculiar partnership. The playwright does an exceptional job alternating between adolescence and adulthood while plainly capturing the mental strain on the characters as they discuss topics ranging from first kisses to self-harm. Ultimately, by concentrating on the challenges faced by varying age groups, all are able to experience the universal desires to feel wanted, conquer personal fears, and overcome grief.
Kayleen and Doug, played by the exhilarating Hannah Oldham and Hunter Meyer, bring impassioned honesty to the characters and delicately reveal these desires. Whether during rowdy childhood moments or subdued instances as adults, the level of connection between both actors was remarkable. This link was evident before the play began when Kayleen challenged Doug to games, including hopscotch as if inviting the audience into their resplendent world.
Oldham, in particular, delivered a chilling performance while capturing the bravery hidden beneath Kayleen’s anguish. For example, after revealing her clenching sexual encounter with a new boyfriend to Doug, her sorrowful display shocked audience members and left many in hushed tears. Meyer perfectly captured Doug’s persistence and courageous optimism throughout his lifespan. Specifically, his interpretation of a giddy 8-year-old is extraordinarily believable. However, one thing seems to challenge both actors: age. After twenty years old, it was difficult to distinguish between their 23-year-old and 38-year-old mindsets.
As for the technical elements, scenic designer Atif Rome created a tattered, metallic set filled with rusted swings and monkey bars, and Rachel Carney’s lighting design split the stage into complimentary pools of violet and golden yellow light during transitions which contrasted the merriment of childhood with the monotony of adulthood. Sound designer Sean Leistico deserves special recognition for perfectly layering high-pitched jibber-jabber of children at play with eerie orchestrations.
Altogether, the adaptation, layered with potent authenticity, emphasized the immense desire to be included. Euripides once said, “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” This quotation accentuates the play’s bruised undercurrent of human attachment. Conclusively, through a vivid representation suffused with jolting twists and turns, “Gruesome” kindles a love that derives from our beautiful internal and external scars.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” A Boy Meets Girl Story for the Bruised
by Lindsay Koehler, Iowa State University
What connects us to one another? In preschool it was our shared love of superheros. As we grow up, we may connect by grieving. In the play, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” by Rajiv Joseph, moments of connection are seen through pain and healing. The production by the Johnson County Community College was directed by Beate Pettigrew put on in the Stoner Theater on January 23rd was a gloriously terrifying example of how we connect through pain.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” follows Doug and Kayleen, two kids whose lives intertwine when one day they meet in the nurse's office. This play goes around as if it is a carousel, showing glimpses of their lives. Over time the audience catches scenes of the kids from the age of elementary school all the way through their adult lives. The play shifts back and forth from one hardship to the next. Gaps are created early on in the script, but only to be filled as time goes on.The writing is clear in its moments childlike wonder but is followed by a crisp poignancy.
The performances of Doug, played by Hunter Meyer, and Kayleen, played by Hannah Oldham, were spectacular. Meyer’s compassion for his partner was pure. His honesty gave a youthful innocence to the character when he was afraid to let go after Kayleen talks about her heartbreaking experiences. Oldham’s portrayal of the cautious and sometimes neurotic Kayleen kept the piece grounded in it’s reality. The chemistry they shared was always full of a fluttery rush, and it easily came off as that of being a fast kindergarten friendship. However, the childish wonder gave the play some moments of awkward pacing by driven excitement cutting off the moments of harsh reality that were needed.
The world that held the story was inviting and innovative. The manipulation of the childlike set pieces forming into mature set pieces kept the play fresh. Having the actors move the set, do makeup, and get dressed in front of the audience during transitions really deconstructed the fourth wall, capturing the actors relationship between the character’s scenes. These moments were building blocks of what this play was about, the truthful connections we share. The unlimited playable set that designer Atif Rome gave to his actors was a gift. Costume designer, Katie Coen, made the costumes versatile and age appropriate for the actors to play children all the way through adulthood.
However, the most captivating technical element was the soundscape. The ambient sounds that filled the audience's ears throughout the play bursted with realism and dreamlike wonder. The sound designer, Sean Liestico, keeps the soundscape grounded when in the reality of the scenes, but whimsical during transitions. The meld of these two contrasting ideas melted perfectly, just like a kids imagination and perception of the world around them.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” is a play of simply deep connections. It’s the unconditional love you feel when you instantaneously connect with someone for the first time, which overall captures the message that sometimes our cuts are what can connect us.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” Leaves an Elaborate Scar
by Allie Kantack, South Dakota State University
Wounds leave their marks on us, and until we heal, it hurts when someone touches them. But not all scars can be seen and some tear through even the thickest skin. In their recent production of “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” Johnson County Community College touched many scars through a piercingly honest performance. Written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Beate Pettigrew, this play illuminated the ups and downs of a sporadic companionship that “hurt like crazy” from childhood to adulthood.
Through non-chronological chapters, the script exhibits a severed relationship between two durable but damaged individuals. Over a span of thirty years, we see Doug (Hunter Meyer) and Kayleen (Hannah Oldham) portrayed as playmates, friends, possible lovers and practically strangers. But regardless of their relationship, their intimacy allows them to both hurt and heal one another as they struggle through the physically and emotionally painful parts of life.
The cast of two clearly demonstrated a deep sense of trust and comfort with one another. Their connection as actors translated into a strong bond between characters who cannot seem stop caring for each other. These actors also convincingly sculpted their characters in childhood, adulthood, and anywhere in between by using the characters’ experiences to define their behaviors. Yet their strongest quality was the ability to seem lovable even in the most loathsome emotions, such as fear, anger or loss.
The scenery, designed by Atif Rome, served both the script and the thrust stage well. The clever use of playground equipment efficiently held many purposes, such as the seesaw which turned into a bench. While the set did not include any major obstructions, the chalkboard floor could not be seen from every seat. On the other hand, the fact that audience members stood up to glance at the drawings on the floor proves that they were engaged.
Designer Sean Leistico crafted a detailed and believable arrangement of sound with everything from ambient noise to suitable music. In theory, the design was perfect; in execution, not so much. The nonstop noise made it difficult to hear every line, particularly when actors used younger or softer voices. Fortunately, the problem quickly resolved as the actors or the levels eventually adjusted.
Between each scene, transitions included the actors moving set pieces, changing costumes, or applying makeup wounds. With so many technical elements to change, these interruptions felt both rushed and lengthy. However, the actors took advantage of this time by giving purpose to their tasks. Whether by conversing with each other or simply sharing a look, they turned these seconds into moments — a detail that did not go unnoticed.
Through this performance, Johnson County Community College gave the audience a fragmented glimpse into the heartbreaking lives of two suffering personas. The cast and crew immediately caught our attention with endearing and relatable characters trapped in painful circumstances. Distracted by a beautifully irregular love, the audience didn’t realize that while these characters left their marks on each other, the performance had left its mark on us.
A Gruesome Experience
by Lydia Lonnquist, Bethany Lutheran University
One boy. One girl. One mixed up, gruesome, yet somewhat romantic story. Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries was written for those with a liking for something that begins light-hearted, but eventually slips into darkness. Hopscotching forwards and backwards at five year intervals in Kayleen and Doug’s lives as they gradually grow older, the two seem to constantly just miss each other in opportunities to develop a romance. Surely, that love story would have been filled with bloody bandages, and hopes that the healing touch of love can conquer any form of brokenness.
Through a string of varying injuries that Doug suffers in each scene, Kayleen attempts to suppress her feelings towards him as the two gradually wound their way further into the playground. Oldham and Meyer took advantage of the two swings hanging down from either side of the set, a small see-saw downstage center that was later doubled as a bench, and a small nursing facility upstage right. The two friends fight for and against their building and crumbling relationship, as easily changeable as the clothes ripped off and mended back together between scenes.
Hannah Oldham and Hunter Meyer played together pre-show to give a hint of their characters personalities’. Between drawing a chalk shark with a butt to making a comment about what could be put on a resume, it was difficult to tell at times what age they were supposed to be. This same problem came back during scene transitions when the two actors’ adlib felt almost forced, but who could blame them? When an actor is rushing to continue a show, his or her mind is focused on how to get from point A to point B. This could be clearly demonstrated the same way as Doug not quite always knowing how to reach out to Kayleen, even though he knows he must.
Admittedly, just as Kayleen battled with trying to understand her own wants and desires, the transitions must have been difficult to block. Two possible solutions to this problem would have been to either pantomime speech, or to maybe not have dialogue at all. Simply watching the two quickly shifting into their next ages was interesting enough, such as near the end of the play when their older selves became more distant.
There is no doubt how challenging this show would be to produce thanks again to the quick morphing between ages, and for that, the show was well attempted. The explosions of energy between Oldham and Meyer were intriguing, although sometimes slower scenes drifted from this. The show was one that the 4 o’clock audience seemed to enjoy, laughing at many of the outrageous situations such as Kayleen and Doug staring into a garbage can filled with their vomit, and slowly mixed together. There was something truly sickeningly sweet that rippled throughout the audience as many cringed, laughed and were touched by the friendship of one boy and one girl.
Gruesome Playground Injuries and the Scars that Connect Us
by Kendall McKasson, St. Ambrose University
In both life and love, pain is unavoidable. It presents itself in many different forms but no matter what, it takes a toll on each of us. Johnson County Community College’s production of “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph depicts a not-so-traditional love story through a series of fragmented vignettes. The story follows Kayleen, played by Hannah Oldham, and Doug, played by Hunter Meyer. It begins with the two meeting in a school infirmary and from there the story jumps back and forth through the pivotal moments of the relationship that the two characters share for the next thirty years.
Though there were some unclear aspects in the production, it wasn’t difficult to see where this show was successful. One interesting aspect was that this set was incorporated into a playground as it showed a childlike aspect that remained in the kids from the day they met and as they grew up. With that being said, the staging of the show sometimes made it difficult to establish a sense of place because of the outdoor park elements that were incorporated into scenes that took place indoors.
One thing that really stood out in this show was the natural connection that the two characters shared. The show was able to hold the attention of audience members because the connection that Oldham and Meyer shared seemed so perfectly right even when the world around them was anything but. Both characters did a great job of establishing their relationship and showing how it changed as they grew from children who shared fun and innocent banter to adults facing love and loss. There were a few areas during the production that seemed confusing. During scene changes it became difficult to distinguish whether the dialogue that was being exchanged was meant to be delivered in character or if it was meant to be conversation between the actors during a quick change.
Overall, this was an all too true story that shows that not every love story ends in a happily ever after. It shares the honest truth that love is complex, and you have to fight for the people you love even if you don’t always win the battle. This show was successful at sending a message. Life is love, life is pain, and the realistic truth is that we can’t avoid being presented with both. The beautiful thing is that they each have unique ways of connecting us and creating bonds that are unbreakable no matter how broken life can make us feel.
Layered performances elevate “Gruesome Playground Injuries” from good to great
by Rachel Phillips, University of Missouri
An idyllic scene greeted the audience of Johnson County Community College’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” The lights cast shadows on the floor, and birds chirped as two actors bantered and played on playground equipment. But, as the title suggests, that peace didn’t last. It did, however, establish the electric chemistry between actors Hannah Oldham and Hunter Meyer, whose performances made a compelling but underdeveloped script a must-see.
Taking place over 30 years, the drama by Rajiv Joseph, whose play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, was dark and raw, examining self-destructive behavior and friendship. The play, which ran Jan. 23 at the Stoner Theatre, follows the tumultuous relationship between bruised but unbroken Kayleen (Oldham) and Doug (Meyer), jumping back and forth through time as they are brought together by injuries, both internal and external.
Joseph’s premise is compelling. Throwing together two messed-up, accident-prone individuals made for good drama. Yet, after a while, the structure of moving through time at certain intervals became formulaic. Furthermore, with only glimpses of their background, at times, the characters felt like a list of injuries rather than a complete person.
Yet, Oldham and Meyer moved the script past its flaws with their layered performances. While Kayleen often harshly pushes Doug away, Oldham also captured Kayleen’s brokenness and vulnerability by becoming quiet and internal. For example, when discussing her cutting, Oldham spoke softly with voice shaking, showing Kayleen’s emotional side.
Meyer expressed Doug’s restless, daredevil nature. He was in constant motion, communicating Doug’s perpetual energy and agitated state. But, he also skillfully portrayed Doug’s rage-filled, violent side. For example, his clenched fists and harsh, forceful tones when he was angry with Kayleen’s boyfriend communicated this other side of him, making the character layered and compelling.
The chemistry between the pair was the highlight. The two were at ease. They laughed and bantered back and forth at a comfortable speed. This ease carried throughout both the scripted scenes and the scene changes as they continued to talk and play as they changed clothes and applied wounds in full view.
Talented designers aided the performers in elevating the script. Sound designer Sean Leistico covered scene changes with the sound of children laughing while scenic designer Atif Rome created a literal playground complete with swings, a teeter-totter and even monkey bars. This reflected not only the title of the play, but also the stunted maturity of the main characters.
Director Beate Pettigrew then effectively utilized this set in her blocking. She had the actors using the playground equipment throughout, even during those scene changes. For example, when the pair was talking in the nurse’s office, Doug played on the monkey bars. This not only created visual interest, but also reminded viewers of the characters’ playfulness.
The ending of play was the opposite of the idyllic picture presented in the beginning. The pair’s future looks bleak as Joseph’s script drops off, lacking a strong resolution or commentary on the toxic nature of the character’s relationship. Yet, the actors’ chemistry remained strong keeping the show compelling until the very end.
Imperfections elevate harsh yet romantic “Gruesome Playground Injuries”
by Gabriela Velasquez, University of Missouri
The first kiss shared by the supposedly star-crossed lovers in Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which ran on Jan. 23 at the Des Moines Civic Center, is bittersweet. It’s a brief moment shared between an insecure teenage girl and a confused boy. This moment embodies the tragic “almost” quality of Joseph’s messy romance, put on by Johnson County Community College.
For Kayleen (Hannah Oldham) and Doug (Hunter Meyer), the fault is not in their stars, but in themselves. In a series of non-linear scenes following their messy relationship between the ages of 8 and 38, the two compare their scars as they navigate their ever-changing feelings and individual crises.
Doug’s pain is externalized. He is reckless and unlucky, and this manifests in a new injury in every scene. Hunter Meyer imbues him with as much sincerity as cluelessness, making Doug likable even when he just can’t stop pushing.
“I’m not stupid,” he says to Kayleen at one point. “I’m just brave, that’s all. Please don’t leave.” In moments of brutal, emotional honesty like this one, Meyer’s voice cracks and his eyes glisten. The moment feels achingly real. There’s no dramatics, just open, imperfect humanity.
While Meyer’s performance is grounded in physical expression, Hannah Oldham is tasked with internalizing her emotional conflict. This is a monumental task for any actor, but she tackles it with the kind of grace and poise not seen in actors twice her age. Oldham delivers an enthralling performance as Kayleen, who struggles with depression as the play progresses. In Oldham’s hands, Kayleen feels like a young Diana Goodman: multi-faceted, wildly emotional, but still believable and sympathetic. Oldham shines brightest in a lengthy monologue near the play’s middle that allows her to display her full emotional range.
Scene designer Atif Rome has crafted a remarkably versatile set that creates a toy box-esque atmosphere. The stage is adorned with colorful chalk art. Beds and seesaws double as cots and benches. Two swings hang from the black box theater’s scaffolding on the left and right of the thrust stage. Rachael Carney’s colorful lighting design creates a dreamlike atmosphere that amplifies the play’s isolated moments in time.
Director Beate Pettigrew draws heavily on the natural chemistry between Meyer and Oldham to drive the production. Her blocking follows patterns: Doug chases, Kayleen retreats, Kayleen relents, advances and so on. Her vision makes the script, which feels incomplete at points, fresh and investing.
Despite the gut-wrenching performances delivered by Oldham and Meyer, the ending to “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is wholly unsatisfying. This is a problem embedded in the script, which seeks to be open-ended but winds up being more confusing than thought provoking. The questions swirling in the theatre are more about plot than the potential toxicity of Kayleen and Doug’s relationship.
Despite the vague ending, however, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” is a master class of spectacular acting and storytelling. For about an hour, the world becomes just what’s shared between Meyer and Oldham’s eyes, and that, more than anything, is enough.
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Beate Pettigrew presented by Johnson County Community College for the KCACTF Region V Festival and plays at the Des Moines Civic Center: Stoner Theater (221 Walnut Street Des Moines, IA 50309) on January 23rd at 10:00 AM, 1:00 PM, 4:00 PM, and 7:30 PM. This is a free-ticketed event for registered festival attendees only. Cast: Hannah Oldham as Kayleen and Hunter Meyer as Doug. Scene design by Atif Rome, Costume design by Katie Coen, Lighting design by Rachael Carney, Properties design by Katherine Allison, and Sound design by Sean Leistico
“Chalk It Up to The Text: Missouri Baptist University’s production of “Caucasian Chalk Circle”
by Rachel Bland, University of Central Missouri
Lights up. Or not.
Missouri Baptist University takes on the daunting task of presenting Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the region five KCACTF festival. In a retelling King Solomon’s judgement in which two women claim to be the mother of the same baby and the Chinese parable “The Chalk Circle,” Brecht has made a strong statement on the political climate in which he lived. With director Kaset Cox at the helm, the ensemble cast pushes the audience to consider the oppressed people of a society, urging them to consider if the goods of the land should “go to those who are good for it.”
Brecht believed that realistic plays failed in producing active thought in an audience. He strove to evoke real thought through a presentational style of theatre, alienating an audience to the point where there is no doubt that what is seen is a play, nothing more. The idea was that this would build empathy in an audience, which is definitely something that is needed in today’s audience.
Running at a solid two hours the play jogs along without an intermission, forcing its audience to endure the harshness of the story itself and the wordy and complicated text that demands constant attention to follow. When a play functions under these conditions, it is up to the ensemble to carry out the intention of the playwright through a strong connection of clarity and understanding to its audience.
And they tried. They really, really tried. Moments of direct audience interaction, a steady stream of catchy music, and ridiculously absurd accents attempted to capture and keep its viewers. They even went as far to include a condensed synopsis in the program to follow along with, as if predicting that their audience would get lost amidst the barrating text. Where the production fails is in its attempt to reach the audience in this marathon of a production. But no matter how strong the ensemble or how loud the actors can yell, they simply miss the mark in their long jump towards the finish line.
The technical elements of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” accomplish Brecht’s goal in that it jars the audience just enough to pull them out of the comfort accustomed to when attending the theatre. In place of a beautiful set, a crude platform and simple blocks of various size lie on top of the gaudy carpet of the Marriott hotel salon. Instead of warm lights gently lighting the actors while audience members sit in the dark, all experience the show beneath harsh fluorescent lighting. This presentational style is driven even further with small chalkboards held by actors, drawn on to show a number of different items from a knife to hot water. And it does the job. Having no darkness to hide behind, the audience is forced to actively watch.
Brecht wanted his audience to think about his deep and unsettling themes. But with Missouri Baptist portrayal, the audience eventually just finds themselves thinking, “how much longer?”
The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, Translation by Eric Bentley. Marriott Hotel Salon D, Des Moines, Iowa. Cast: Tyler Gruen, Rachel S. Yarbrough, Matthew Riordan, Jett Wallace, Sarah Ratcliff, Nick Cook, Lindsey Peters, Daniel Dilworth, Cameron Tyler, Nathanael Pezzo. Production Staff: Director: Kasey Cox, Assistant Director: Rebekah Side, Art Director: Emily Rice, Stage Manager: Alle Head, Carpenter: Nick Cook.