The peripatetic Ground Up & Rising, which has performed in more places than just about any other South Florida theater company, is back, this time in the groovy Artistic Vibes space near the Falls Shopping Center in south Miami-Dade County.
With Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, the company has found an intimate, challenging play for its newest venue. Director and Ground Up cofounder Arturo Rossi has a strong two-person cast in Sheaun McKinney (another Ground Up founder who was, like Rossi, featured on the first season of TV’s Graceland) and Valentina Izarra.
Though the play isn’t as provocative or obviously significant as Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, this taut two-hander offers a quirky, unsettling look at how literally painful life can be.
With a ritualistic style and structure, Gruesome Playground Injuries follows the lifelong physical and emotional misadventures of Dougie (McKinney) and Kayleen (Izarra), first encountered as 8-year-olds in the nurse’s office at their parochial school. Doug has hurt himself by playing Evel Knievel, deliberately riding his bike off the school’s roof. He confesses to Kayleen, whose aching stomach is acting up yet again, that he likes to get stitches because, he says, “It makes my skin feel tight.”
Thus is born a mutual fascination with the physical woes and wounds that represent the characters’ deeper psychological pain.
The play checks in with Doug and Kayleen at different moments in their lives, over a period of 30 years, though the visits aren’t chronological. Each scene provides a puzzle piece that helps to illuminate these two damaged souls, a guy and gal who are (however perversely) perfect for each other, though their longing never seems to be in synch.
Each scene is a snapshot, a device underscored by director Rossi as a wordless photographer who captures the place (hospital, school, psychiatric ward) and time of each encounter. Moving gracefully in a choreographed way, the actors achieve their time-traveling simply, changing shoes, Kayleen altering her hairstyle, Dougie adding a bandage that conceals a horrifying eye injury.
Izarra is very much the adult actress playing a kid in the childhood scenes, but her Kayleen impressively ripens into a furious, damaged, self-destructive woman. McKinney brings just enough rough-and-tumble whimsy to little Dougie, and he makes the grown-up Doug’s longing for Kayleen, the character’s belief in her healing powers, utterly convincing.
One tweak that would help the production: The actors need to project better, as some dialogue becomes almost unintelligible. In Gruesome Playground Injuries, the words and the wounds are inextricable.