Life is a way of collecting love and injuries. The Constructivists explore this on one of the coldest weekends of the year as they present Rajiv Joseph’s comedic drama Gruesome Playground Injuries. Scenes from a couple of somewhat fictional lives glance through light and shadow in a warm and cozy, little subterranean stage downtown. Two people intermittently meet in non-linear moments from the end of one millennium and the beginning of the next and back again. There’s love and concern. There’s pain and loss. There’s a beautifully fragmented human connection that materializes as time passes. (Roughly 90 minutes without intermission.)
Designer Sarah Harris’ set presents the drama in front of a group of large, monolithic slabs made to look like cracking plaster. There are a few wooden beams visible. The year of any given scene is written by one of the two actors in chalk on a little blackboard painted onto a central rear wall. Harris also assembled the wardrobe, which scatters a clever style from childhoods at the end of the ’80s to adulthoods somewhere in the present. In the sonic background of it all, there’s the persistent melody of Phil Collins’ 1988 cover of, “Groovy Kind of Love,” mixing with fragments of various other songs.
Solana Ramírez-García is hauntingly earthbound as Kayleen. There’s a restlessly still silence about her. Kayleen is quietly enduring some overwhelmingly intense stress in her life. Ramírez-García delicately treads a fine line in characterization. The character wants someone to emotionally open-up to, but she might not want to actually go through the business of opening-up. The character seems to want to show just enough strength to show people the fact that she’s enduring casual horrors. Maybe she’s just sitting there or maybe she’s just lamenting the lack of maturity of her companion, but underneath it all that is summoned to the stage with Ramírez-García’s distinctively beautiful voice. There's a subtle Latin American lilt in her voice that adds character to the overall aesthetic of the production.
Rob Schreiner plays the guy who is falling in love with Kayleen. A guy named Doug. Doug is accident-prone. He’s a student. He’s a hockey player. Later-on he’s a claims adjuster. He’s irrepressibly positive about everything. He’s always walking into a scene with a different injury from a different off-stage encounter with risk, misfortune or both. Schreiner does a good job with Doug. There’s no doubting his overall nice-guy charisma decked-out in rugged street clothes, a few tattoos and flesh-colored plug retainers. Schreiner manages the tricky business of seeming resilient in the face of constant injury without compromising Doug’s personality. He’s going to be there for Kayleen no matter what. Schriener’s earnestness keeps this from ever coming across as anything other than compassionate. It’s not weird. It’s not creepy. It’s not emotionally imbalanced. It’s just Doug. And Doug’s a nice guy. Schreiner makes it look easy.
It’s almost as fun watching scenes change as it is watching them play out. We see the whole process of going from one scene to the other between scripted moments as two actors share the small stage with two characters moving from one moment in the past 30 years to another. They’re changing from one set of clothes to another. Schreiner changes the make-up from one injury to the other. Actors re-center themselves from one point in the characters’ lives to another. This is fascinating on one of the most intimate studio theatre spaces in town...you can see two actors and two characters sharing a moment in passing between nearly every scene where Ramírez-García and Schreiner look at each other for a brief second before the scene starts. The actor and character from on face glances at the actor and character from another face. In one unspoken moment they set the emotional stage for the next moment that they’re going to play through. As an audience we get to see the process behind the process. We’re seeing actors and characters in very emotionally intimate and vulnerable moments. It’s quite an experience.
Director Jaimelyn Gray establishes a very dynamic gravity for The Constructivists’ first show. It’s a really sophisticated juxtaposition of actors, characters and audience in a comfortable space that explores some of the deeper end of human emotion without faltering, fumbling or overreaching. An excellent first outing for the group. Too bad the show only runs for one weekend.
The Constructivists’ production of Gruesome Playground Injuries runs through Feb. 4 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit The Constructivists Online,