Kenton Klassen and Pippa Johnstone in the 2014 production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Kenton Klassen and Pippa Johnstone in the 2014 production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.

Despite its rather morbid title, Gruesome Playground Injuries is a surprisingly tender story of love and friendship.

[pullquote]… this is not a traditional love story, instead it is one that actor Kenton Klassen, who plays Doug, so accurately described in our recent interview as that grey area between love and friendship.[/pullquote]On the surface, Doug and Kayleen’s relationship is not that unusual, as they weave in and out of each other’s lives over a period of thirty years.  What does take their relationship beyond the ordinary is they are only ever reunited when one or more is victim to some sort of physical or mental tragedy.

In playwright Rajiv Joseph’s non-linear story, this seemingly random pattern begins at age eight and jumps across their lives’ timelines to the final scene at age 38.  At each juncture, their strange connection is announced by the two actors: “scene 2, age 23, eye blown out” or “scene 5, age 33, blue raspberry dip”.  As we meet them at their various ages, their enigmatic link is just as strangely deepened by their need to hurt themselves, manifested by Doug’s desire for physical pain and Kayleen’s mysterious mental injuries.

If it weren’t already evident, this is not a traditional love story, instead it is one that actor Kenton Klassen, who plays Doug, so accurately described in our recent interview as that grey area between love and friendship.

With Pippa Johnstone as Kayleen, she and Klassen explore that grey area with varying degrees of success, hampered by the playwright who doesn’t allow his characters much depth.  We jump so quickly and repetitively along their timeline that there is little time to find out what really makes them tick.

Both talented newcomers, having recently graduated together from the theatre program at UBC, Johnstone is particularly good here as the one with the internal scars. Her scene at age 33 with its drug-induced detachment is vivid and heart-wrenching.  Klassen matches that intensity on a different place on the emotional spectrum, and in another ironic twist given Doug’s own injuries, asks to experience Kayleen’s need for self-injury.

Under the direction of Chelsea Haberlin, the show moves at a phenomenal pace, even as Klassen and Johnstone make onstage costume changes and set the space for each new scene.  Proving that it is the small things that can matter, she ensures each scene changes is varied and helps set the stage with small clues as to what is about to happen next.  She is helped immensely by Chris Adams’ sound design that includes music suited to the place on the current timeline.

Establishing herself as a director of site-specific theatre, in a recent Vancouver Sun article Haberlin said that even when she moves into a traditional theatre space she is “always looking at ways of putting the audience inside the story and making them really integral to the story.”  I was excited by the possibilities from Haberlin’s usually fertile mind, especially inside Pacific Theatre’s traverse stage.  Unfortunately that never materializes, and while it doesn’t take away from the production if you don’t know this going in, I admit to having left somewhat disappointed.

There is a great deal to like here and despite its refusal to dig deeper, Gruesome Playground Injuries still manages to deliver some moments of brilliance.

Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph.  A Pacific Theatre presentation of A Stone’s Throw Production.  On stage at Pacific Theatre through July 12.  Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.