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In the idiom of the penultimate show produced at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, Angels in America: Perestroika, the squirming facts exceeded the squamous mind – or they certainly upstaged CAST’s current offering, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Early Friday morning, news from the CAST board of directors hit my inbox announcing that Joseph’s play would be the last that the company would ever produce. The final show will not even complete its originally announced run, closing on June 21 instead of July 12 and dropping all of its remaining Thursday night performances. There were only a couple of previous signs that the company was on the verge of imploding. CAST and Executive Director Crystal Dempsey parted ways before opening night of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2 – possibly as early as this March – and the two cast members listed in the June 4 press release for Playground Injuries were altogether different from those previously submitted for CVNC’s calendar listings. Attendance at Angels had been shameful when I attended on its opening weekend, but I’d received assurances that the crowds increased as the run continued.
After board member Charles LaBorde, a co-director of the Angels marathon, announced the news of the company’s demise to the audience in the lobby on Friday night, our filing into the Gilweit Theatre – named after CAST’s founder – had a decidedly funereal tang. In the wake of Angels, Joseph’s piece is a miniature in every way, fewer actors, far fewer scenic demands, no intermissions, and a running time that doesn’t quite reach 90 minutes.
We go back and forth in time with Doug, who eventually becomes an insurance adjuster, and Kayleen, destined to languish as a waitress. They are eight-years-old in the opening scene, when Doug, the more adventurous and injury-prone of the two, meets Kayleen in the nurse’s office of their elementary school, spattered with blood after falling and breaking his face. He was emulating daredevil Evel Knievel, so the split-open face is a fairly predictable result when you try to ride off a roof on a bicycle, and it surely trumps Kayleen’s stomachache in dominating their dialogue.
Doug has apparently not been chastened or traumatized by his childhood misadventure, for the next time we see him at age 23, in a hospital, he’s even more blood-spattered than before, having just blown out his left eye. We won’t find out until five scenes later why Doug is so angry with Kayleen or why he called out for her while he was unconscious. But we begin to see that the two are kindred spirits, for in one of her most telling lines about Doug, she observes, “you’d never commit suicide because you wouldn’t have any scars to show off afterward.” Less spectacularly, we learn that Kayleen also has a tendency to seek medication and hurt herself, disclosing at one point that she attempted to cut out that troublesome stomach as she shows Doug her scar. Shuttling back and forth in the lives of these sometime friends, we learn that each has abandoned the other at a key moment. So Joseph’s zigzagging tale is very much an exploration of two mysteries, why we capriciously hurt others and, deeper yet, why we hurt ourselves.
That latter mystery gets an extra theatrical twist between scenes as the protagonists withdraw to opposite corners of the arena stage to change costumes and redo their makeup in plain view (if you’ve been seated fortuitously). Simple projections of the scene numbers, titles, and ages pop up during these scene changes to orient us where we’re hopscotching to next. Keeping score of the ages – and letting readers discover the titles and full catalogue of injuries themselves – the back-and-forth chronology is 8, 23, 13, 28, 18, 33, 23, and 38. Eric Blake, who made his Charlotte debut in 2001 as the trouble-prone Bobby in David Mamet’s American Buffalo, demonstrated that he hasn’t lost the knack for drawing our sympathies toward dumb, gross, pestering losers. Making an auspicious Charlotte debut under very inauspicious circumstances, Nicky Jasper delivered all of Kayleen’s troubled personality without violating the playwright’s call for “a flat, non-inquiring tone.” Both performers shrewdly calibrated their portrayals of eight-year-olds, understating their childishness, so that it chimed perfectly with the onstage dressing-room concept.
Otherwise, director Kelly Mizell-Ryan didn’t make all the right moves in CAST’s farewell. Aside from pushing the dressing tables and mirrors too far into the corners for everyone in the audience to see, she wasn’t any more vigilant than some past CAST directors in making sure Blake and Jasper are consistently audible throughout the deceptively large theater. When we reached the final scene, a tableau reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac in its debilitated and missed-opportunity flavorings, Mizell-Ryan staged it so far toward the opposite corner of the hall that I hardly heard a word of it.
The most memorable scene of the evening happened when Doug and Kayleen are just 13, meeting up in a backroom of a school dance, Doug arriving after hurting his ankle and finding Kayleen sulking alone. The awkward intimacies that follow, both the expected and the bizarre, are consummated with a ceremonial mixing of body fluids – one of them a surprise that is deftly set up. As that scene fades out, we may get the notion that Joseph has encapsulated how the two sexes interact with one another, for it will become part of the memory that Doug and Kaylee will share 30 years later in the final scene. Or so I’ve been told.
Gruesome Playground Injuries continues through Saturday, June 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.