NewCharacter has exploded onto the Melbourne Fringe Theatre scene with a gripping production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Under the direction of macabre theatre and film director David Ward, this production pushes the boundaries of the human psyche and explores the consequences of the indestructible ties of life-long friendship.
Gruesome Playground Injuries tells the story of best friends Kayleen and Doug. Played by Katarina Von Scholler and Nicholas Jaquinot, we watched these characters swing back and forth in time between the ages of 8 and 38 as their lives continually cross paths in various medical facilities.
Performed in a venue that was accompanied by the squeals from some sort of hen’s night rave on the floor above us, the small but packed-in audience sat and watched this turbulent relationship slowly turn over like clothes in a tumble dryer – never being able to settle or rest. Unfortunately, in addition to the outside noise, the venue also posed a major problem for audience sight lines.
As my butt slowly numbed on the world’s most uncomfortable chair, I found myself getting frustrated at many points in the performance with my inability to see Von Scholler’s face. In the initial scenes her face was completely obscured by her long (beautiful) hair draping down past her cheek. Later on when she revealed some of her own scars to her bewildered best friend, I and anyone else sitting on the left side of the theatre were forced to use our imaginations as she faced her body down the narrow stage space towards the right side of the room. Some directional adjustments and a few hairpins might have provided an easy solution to this gripe.
The two actors gave captivating performances. To put it simply, Nicholas Jaquinot is an astounding actor. From start to finish, it was difficult to shift focus away from him as he swung wildly between various physical ailments and levels of emotional despair. On the surface, Doug is an adrenaline junkie. Addicted to thrill seeking and accepting of the inevitable physical pains that follow. But as the play unfolds, you realize that each of his actions all somehow relate to his insatiable love for Kayleen. He falls down and he bounces back, for her.
Von Scholler’s performance was strong – but in the sense that it was very aggressive and almost unwaveringly awash with angst and anger. From ‘age 8’, Kayleen is a stand-offish, rude and insecure young woman who uses insults as a defense mechanism against anything and anyone that comes close to uncovering the fragility beneath her hardened shell. Despite her social shortcomings, Doug continues to pursue her. For the entire show I was waiting for a moment where Kayleen’s overtly defensive guard would drop, a moment where I could see ‘why’ Doug is so infatuated with this girl who keeps pushing him away with such force.
The only moment when there was a glimpse of any light in this relentlessly dark character was when she threatened to burn him with her lit cigarette only to realise that the cigarette had gone out and ‘the actor’ let out a little giggle. I wanted to see more of that side of Kayleen to find the reason as to why Doug keeps coming back for more. Surely, nobody can be that angry all the time.
That being said, Von Scholler has a beautiful presence on stage and her portrayals of Kayleen between the ages of 8 and 18 were a highlight – I just wish I could have seen more of her face.
The third star of this production is the sound scape. Having viewed much of David Ward’s work, I can say with confidence that this man knows how to match the music to the moment. Featuring most prominently in the ‘scene changes’ when the actors peeled away the present to pull on the past or future, the music weaved into the show in a way that made these costume changes feel more like a transitional modern ballet.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is a production for the senses. As with all of his works, David Ward makes sure that the story is told through more than what is spoken by his actors on stage. Then striking lighting changes (credit to Emma Fox), the window-rattling soundscapes, the haunting scene change music, the subtle details in the set design (credit to Eleanora Steiner) and the total disregard for a neat-and-tidy performance space. These are all marks of a director who is confident in his craft, without the pretentious indulgences that often accompany such endeavours that are ‘edgy’ for the sake of being ‘hipster’.