Content warning: This article mentions self harm and sexual assault.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries” had its characters — and the audience — in stitches this past weekend at the Katharine Cornell Theater.
Part of UB’s student-directed series of plays, the two-actor show follows three decades of Kayleen (Alissa di Cristo) and Doug’s (Brandan Booker) lives. Quick-witted Kayleen often chastises sensitive daredevil Doug’s impulsive behaviors and consequential injuries. Despite Doug’s initial claim that “girls don’t get scars,” the audience soon learns that Kayleen carries her own burdens.
The show lived up to its promises of realism, tackling hard-hitting issues like sexual violence and self-harm. In one particularly poignant scene, Kayleen opens up to Doug about her experience with sexual assault and her self-destructive method of coping: cutting herself with a razor.
To convey authenticity, the cast needed to put themselves in the vulnerable headspaces of their characters.
“That [self harm scene] was the hardest emotionally, but also physically, because it’s hard to put myself in that space of mind,” Di Cristo, a senior theatre performance major, said.
Booker, who stripped to his underwear during that scene, also had to grapple with the seriousness and emotional bandwidth that the scene demanded. In the face of such challenges, Booker feels that the creative team fostered a safe environment to explore the subject matter.
“[The director] explained his vision for it,” Booker said. “He just made it seem so comfortable and so vulnerable for everything.”
Despite the emotional highs and lows of portraying the characters’ mental and physical scars, the show maintains its edgy and goofy humor throughout.
In a favorite scene of Di Cristo and Booker’s, Kayleen and Doug find themselves in the nurse’s office at a high school dance: the former nauseous and the latter’s ankle injured from “too much limboing.” The characters admire their own vomit, mixed together in a trash can, after an awkward “practice kiss” between them.
“They’re like, ‘Do you wanna see my throw up?’” Di Cristo recalled, laughing.
Booker said the scene was “really fun,” but for less vomit-related reasons. He embraced getting to act like a young teenager again — the kind of kid who wore a tie around his forehead.
“‘How would I act at a school dance?’” Booker asked himself to prepare for the scene.
The transitions between scenes, spanning years and even decades, showcased the show’s unconventionality. On the dim stage, the actors stripped down and changed costumes while Paige Kent — assistant director and a junior communications and theatre major — played the role of a stagehand, altering the set and switching out props.
“This is a show about their lives and their transitions. I mean, it’s either five or 10 years backwards, 15 years forward,” Kent said. “We’re going huge gaps of time. It’d be really boring for the audience for [the actors] to just go off stage and hear rustling.”
Di Cristo said those speedy transitions took time to nail. When John Della Contrada — the show’s director and a senior theatre performance major — explained that they would be doing transitions on stage with two minute songs, Di Cristo felt the pressure.
“I was like, ‘How am I gonna do that?’” Di Cristo said. “I thought I was gonna be a mess, like my hair was gonna be one way and my shirt was gonna be the other way.”
Ultimately, the cast and crew hammered down these whirlwind transitions and seamless on-stage changes. Few shows risk such an unorthodox approach, but for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” it paid off.
Following the final curtain call, Della Contrada beamed with pride as he stood up from the audience to bow with his cast and crew.
“I feel so honored to have the privilege of being able to do something like this,” Della Contrada said. “I can’t believe it’s over. It still feels like tomorrow I have to come in and do it all again.”
Alex Novak is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The arts desk can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Novak is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.