What better way to go through February than with a play which deals with the basic underlying human need we are looking to fulfill – love? Gruesome Playground Injuries, written by up-and-coming playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a twisted romantic comedy which follows the decades-spanning relationship of two made-for-each-other masochists.
Asked why Gruesome is a part of Theatre B’s 11th season, director Pam Strait had this to say: “Gruesome, well, it’s in the season because Matthew loved it.” Theatre B lost ensemble member Matthew Burkholder in December 2012 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Matthew was passionate about Gruesome and knew he wanted to direct the show. “This show is in our season because it was in his heart.”
Pam continued: “I’m the fallback guy. I didn’t come to the project with the love Matthew had for it. I didn’t fall in love with it until after I started to work on it. So I’m finding after the fact all the beautiful things Matthew already knew.”
“I remember visiting Matthew, and he would talk and talk about how much he loved Gruesome.” said B program coordinator Brad Delzer. “He was in love with the characters; flawed and flailing as they are, and yet still striving for connection. He was fascinated with them and their story.”
During the course of Gruesome Playground Injuries, audiences see Doug (Taylor Schatz) – an accident-prone daredevil – and Kayleen (Christina Johnson) – a self-destructive masochist – navigate friendship, love and everything in between. Pam hopes that “the audiences will fall in love with these two characters the same way I did.”
Pam, an ensemble member who has been onstage at B in Good People, Kuwait, 8 the Play, and The Dead Guy is no stranger to directing, having worked on Vino Veritas and Next Fall (which also starred Matthew). Gruesome, however, has posed some specific challenges.
Gruesome plays out as a series of vignettes that span the 30-year relationship of Doug and Kaleen – from ages 8 to 38. Pam explains this style has a very real purpose – we see these two damaged, but likable characters at their particular moments of crisis. Requiring actors to portray 30 years of a character’s life is unusual, and not a simple task. “But we try to make B, our theatre, as safe a space as possible where our artists, including myself, can be challenged in order to grow.”
Another unusual factor of the production is that a lot of the conventions theatre often relies upon are being stripped away, such as extensive set design, costuming and props. This is being done in an effort to simplify and minimalize aspects that are not pertinent to the story. As a result, the audience is able to focus heavily on the emotion displayed by the actors, requiring Pam to work with the performers to be as focused and specific as possible.
These challenges lead Pam to hope she will leave this production a better director. We have no doubts.
The last time I saw Matthew, I was visiting him in the hospital during one of his extended stays. We had hot Chinese soup and fortune cookies. Then we laid on his bed and read this entire play out loud together. That is one of my fondest memories. He was so excited about the script and couldn’t wait to direct it. I’m very glad to see that B has it in their season. I know you will all make Matthew proud. Break a bunch of legs.