Two actors sit on the floor of the Center for the Arts’ B-83 rehearsal space, running through their lines. Music that sounds like it belongs in an amusement park invades the space from the dance studio across the hall. The rehearsal process has been full of firsts, but the cast of “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” a part of UB’s student-directed series (SDS) of plays, is gearing up to make you laugh — and cry.
The play, showing Sept. 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Katharine Cornell Theater, follows Kayleen (played by Alissa Di Cristo) and Doug (Brandan Booker) as they navigate life over the course of 30 years. Their collective journey, however, is anything but typical.
The play resembles a love story, ranging from a meet-cute to missed connections to growing up. But Paige Kent — the assistant director and a junior communications and theatre major — only puts one label on the story: reality.
“It’s not two people in love. It’s not two people fighting all the time. It’s two people who are very human who have very real issues in their day-to-day life,” Di Cristo, a senior theatre performance major, said.
While this show’s uncommon portrayal of a vividly real, inexplicable relationship will certainly be a first for many audience members, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” also marks several firsts for its cast and creative team.
It’s Booker’s first official foray into theatre at UB and only his second show ever, after playing Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” as a high school senior.
“I’m kind of new to the theatre world,” Booker said. “It’s nerve-wracking. It’s really nerve-wracking. But it’s a good experience. It’s fun. I love the people I’m working with.”
On the other hand, Di Cristo, Booker’s only other castmate in the two-person show, is a veteran of UB’s Theatre Department, having appeared in both “Noises Off” and “Vinegar Tom.” Despite her loaded performance resume, the production is still “different because I’ve never done an SDS before,” Di Cristo said, “But also it’s a two-person cast. It’s abnormal, but it helps the process too.”
The incredibly slim cast gives Di Cristo the opportunity to dive deep into these complex, living, breathing characters. With only two actors, the focus remains on channeling realism.
“The relationship dynamic is something that is not what you would usually see,” Di Cristo shared. “It’s more human than what other plays would portray, and I think that’s why I feel so connected to it.”
Even the man at the helm, John Della Contrada, the show’s director and a senior theatre performance major, felt the show’s pressures during his first time directing a work of this magnitude. Despite his previous experience as an assistant director for other SDS entries and music directing for the Buffalo Chips, Della Contrada found that “Gruesome Playground Injuries” came with its own set of “humbling” challenges.
“It can be sort of nerve-wracking,” Della Contrada said. “Because if I say something and everyone else in the room says in their brains, ‘Oh, that’s not going to work,’ nobody’s going to challenge me on that because they trust me, which is really great. But that also means that it’s up to me to self-correct and up to me to use my instincts to make sure everything is going smoothly. Although I have a lot of the tools to try to succeed, I definitely feel like this is a new experience.”
Della Contrada also needed to delicately handle the show’s graphic content, including self-harm and sexual violence. He attributes their success to a great deal of research and discussions to ensure comfortability and give this content the “respect” it deserves.
“I think that the best way to do that is to just treat them like they’re real,” Della Contrada said. “Don’t try to sugarcoat or dance around the issue. Just show it for what it is and try my absolute hardest to understand these topics and how they affect people in real life.”
Come for the hard-hitting realism and stay for the mystery —- Di Cristo says the show happens out of chronological order, leaving the audience with unanswered questions and keeping them guessing.
“You’ll have to piece it all together at the end,” Di Cristo said. “It’s a puzzle-piece play.”
While putting the pieces together ahead of the show’s debut, Della Contrada issued a challenge to prospective audience members.
“This show can make you laugh and cry at the same time in the span of two seconds,” Della Contrada said. “It’s changed my life reading it, and my hope is that I can have that same thing happen to people who see it. So, at the very least, come and see if I succeed.”
Alex Novak is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.