Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gruesome Playground Injuries

Playwright:  Rajiv Joseph

VenueThe Bakery, 2132 Market Street, Denver Colorado.

Running Time (show only):  1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Sunday, July 26, 2015.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph is best known for his Pulitizer Prize for Drama finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. It opened in 2009, about six months before Gruesome Playground Injuries had its first production later that year.  Both are powerful plays raising profound questions.  Bengal Tiger searches for the meaning of life in the chaos of war; Gruesome Playground Injuries focuses tightly on a bond between two damaged characters whose lives can only be described as depressing and self destructive.

The Bakery.
Passage Theatre’s production of Gruesome Playground Injuries is spartan; The Bakery is a small, intimate block box theater with few amenities.  It’s near Coors Field, a neighborhood that has undergone substantial gentrification in the last 20 years.  The Bakery and it’s neighbors have been bypassed by the development; the building is unremarkable, and the sidewalk approach on a Sunday afternoon was littered with broken glass and an empty bottle of Fireball Whiskey.  It’s hard to imagine a better location for Joseph’s gritty play about self destructive behavior.

The set is as black and as simple as the black box that is The Bakery.  Drawers on the set pieces move in and out to form a bed, a table, or a bench, as needed.  A projection screen on both sides of the set tells us the time and shows us the place:  a hospital room, age 28, Kayleen’s bedroom, age 18, and so on.  

For those who have not seen Gruesome Playground Injuries, it’s a non-linear story of Doug (Kevin Lowry) and Kayleen (Mackenzie Sherburne) and their odd but strong bond.  Both are socially inept; they are poorly equipped to relate to anyone but each other.  The story spans thirty years, but careens randomly through those years with no regard for chronological order.  We see Doug and Kayleen at those times in their lives when they are in their deepest crises. 
Mackenzie Sherburne (Kayleen), Kevin Lowry (Doug).

As the play opens, we see Doug, his head bandaged, after riding his bike off the roof of his school.  Kayleen asks him if it hurts.  He answers her.  “A little.”  That, in fact, is his answer no matter the injury, be it from crashing his bike off a building, losing his eye when hit by fireworks, or being struck by lightning.  It hurts.  “A little.”

Kayleen, for her part, suffers from being raped at age 18.  She resorts to cutting herself with a razor knife.  We see her self inflicted wounds at the same time Doug does.  He’s troubled, yet curious.  He wants to know what it’s like, and asks her to cut him.  She does.  We wince at the sight of the blade on his skin.  It's difficult to watch.

Kevin Lowry (Doug)
Kevin Lowry’s Doug is a paradox; he’s a regular guy, but he can’t stop putting himself in physical danger.  Lowry is an eight year old in the first scene, and he has that little boy innocence that can almost seem to explain his reckless behavior.  He seems immature rather than intentionally reckless.  

As the show goes on, however, Doug ages, but for reasons known only to him, he doesn't mature well.   He still deliberately embarks on episodes of recklessness abandon.  It hurts.  “A little.”  

Lowry conveys Rajiv Joseph’s message to us:  Doug’s emotional conflicts are manifested in excruciating physical distress.  Lowry’s performance is nuanced, powerful, and at times stunning.

Mackenzie Sherburne (Kayleen).
Macenzie Sherburne’s performance is replete with eye rolling facial gestures, anger, and frustration.  She reminded me of the tag line from Brokeback Mountain:  “I wish I knew how to quit you.”  She doesn’t exactly love or hate Doug; in fact, she may be incapable of either emotion.  Still, their paths cross at time of crisis, when they most need each other.  Sherburne makes each of those crises painful to watch.  We keep hoping she will get better, but she never does.  Sherburne wrings every ounce of empathy out of us, to no avail.  We feel her pain, but we are powerless to relieve, reduce, or remove it.

Director Josh Hartwell puts his actors on the stage before the show even begins.  As the audience finds its seats, the actors are seated upstage, their backs to the audience.  They are applying their makeup, getting into costume, and in Sherburne’s case, fixing her long red hair.  The effect is riveting, and the show hasn’t even started.  We can’t see their faces, but we can see the process.  These characters are not interacting with the audience, nor even with each other.  They are carefully grooming themselves for what lies ahead.  Slowly, the audience realizes that the performance is underway twenty minutes before the first line is spoken.

Hartwell provides no cover for his actors during scene changes; they retreat upstage and change costumes while the audience watches.  It’s like looking through a peephole.  It seems wrong, but we can’t look away.  We are reminded that these two characters are so disconnected from society that they ignore us even in these intimate moments.  

The onstage costume changes reinforce something Joseph is trying to tell us: these characters can change their outward appearance, but they cannot change who they are.

It’s likely that we all know someone like Doug or Kayleen.  There’s some segment of the population that routinely makes bad decisions that result in both emotional and physical calamities.  It’s difficult to understand, but not unusual.  

Passage Theatre’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is an examination of self inflicted human suffering.  It’s difficult to watch, but well worth the effort.  The performances are stellar, the set and the setting are spot on, and the script is a small masterpiece of theater.  No fan of intelligent, provocative, and meaningful theater should take a pass on this production.

The best reason, however, for seeing Gruesome Playground Injuries is that it may make you more sensitive to the troubled lives that intersect with our own.  That alone could make the world around us a little bit better.


There is little to no free parking near The Bakery.  Plan on arriving early enough to drive around the Ballpark neighborhood searching for metered street parking before giving up and paying for a surface lot or a parking garage.

The Bakery doesn't seem to have any signage other than the street number.  A small signboard on the sidewalk lets you know that you've arrived at the theater.  Watch your step; the sidewalk is raised above street level, so you have to negotiate some stairs for access.  

This show closes on August 9, 2015

PHOTO CREDITSPassage Theatre.



This isn't a recommendation, except in the sense that I'm recommending that no one reading this post ever goes to the View House.

Unfortunately, we stopped at the View House, 2015 Market Street, Denver, just to try it.  It’s only a block from the theater, so you can easily walk from one to the other.  We had never been to either View House (Lodo and Centennial near Park Meadows), so we gave it a try.

It was expensive for what we got, and not especially well prepared.  Service was adequate.  Overall, an unremarkable but acceptable experience.  

However, after reading a few of the plentiful but mixed Yelp reviews, we won't go back.  View House is in the Ballpark neighborhood, so there are many bar/restaurant choices.  Do yourself a favor and read the the reviews before trying the View House.  I wish we had read them before stopping in.

I should also mention the pay toilets.  Not exactly pay toilets, but you will find a washroom attendant in both the men's and ladies' rooms.  If you want a paper towel, tip the person.  

Let me repeat that:  

This is a bar.  With washroom attendants.  

Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong?  I spent a weekend recently at the Brown Palace.  No washroom attendants there.  You have to go to the View House for washroom attendants.  

Presumably, the View House believes this makes their establishment a cut above the average Lodo bar.  They are wrong.  It exposes the View House for what it is:  a crass, greedy enterprise that will stoop to any level necessary to get your money.

Washroom attendants guilt patrons into tipping, while stripping the attendant of his or her personal dignity.  The practice is repugnant, and I, for one, am hereby informing View House management that I will NOT return for another visit.  EVER.


Producers:  Kevin Lowry & Mackenzie Sherburne

Director:  Josh Hartwell

Scenic Designer/Projections:  Jonathan Scott-McKean

Lighting Designer:  Michael Walker

Sound Designer:  Not credited

Costume Designer:  Nicole Harrison

Stage Manager:  Jo Gerlick


Doug:  Kevin Lowry

Kayleen:  Mackenzie Sherburne


  1. Great review. However, there are no more Rockies home games for the rest of the run of the show.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. The comment is anonymous, but I'm going to assume that it's from someone at Passage Theatre Company and edit the Rockies out of the post...Thanks for the correction!