Review: Made Up Theatre’s ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ a total theatre experience

Doug (Bobby August) and Kayleen (Maria Candelaria) find connection through pain in Made Up Theatre's production of
Doug (Bobby August) and Kayleen (Maria Candelaria) find connection through pain in Made Up Theatre’s production of “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” through July 19th in Fremont. (Made Up Theatre photo)

If only you can have a “practice” first kiss.

That is what eight-year-old Doug had in mind in his parochial school infirmary, an idea he bounced off Kayleen, a lovely little girl of the same age. Doug is there for an injury that was pretty common for any 1970’s child – an aborted replication of any Evil Knievel stunt. Kayleen doesn’t exactly endorse the idea, but goes along with it.

The result is a delightfully humorous kiss, one with every aspect of the awkwardness of when two juvenile lips meet, replete with all of the unnecessary head rolling. The kiss can be considered an epic fail, but it begins a much bigger journey, one that will take both of them through the next 30 years of their life, with vicious injuries piling up as the years go by.

Fremont’s Made Up Theatre, a troupe known for improvisation, has changed up their format a bit. This summer, they are producing their first scripted work, making a fabulous choice in Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which premiered off-Broadway in 2011. It is a solid first choice for Made Up, enhanced greatly by their self-made and deliciously intimate theatre space, which holds up to about 50 patrons.

Joseph’s play looks at eight different vignettes, each of them taking place at a certain age for the characters, and not in chronological order. Each age comes with an injury, some accidental, some self-inflicted, and each injury allows for various levels of connection. You see, these are characters that seem to have a relationship, seem to share attractions at different parts of their co-existence, but can’t seem to ever take the next step.

Bobby August and Maria Candelaria take on these two injury birds, and where the production is strongest is in their connection, lead with sincere and sharp touches by director Iu-Hui Chua. For starters, the play takes place all throughout the theatre, but not in the breaking of the fourth wall kind of way. Audience members are encouraged to write on the walls with chalk about a memory at any point in their life. Many patrons went with their own injuries, and by some simple scanning, there were bike accidents, broken limbs and one person who got a concussion going for a monster dunk.

These are little touches that make this production an effective, total theatre experience. Because there is very little backstage space, scene changes and costume changes take place in full visibility. It is a great way to produce theatre, creating a space and an environment where the audience’s imagination comes fully into play, and no one in the room can sit idly by. We are constantly making decisions on how we interpret the material, because everything is food for thought.

Maria Candelaria and Bobby August. (Made Up Theatre photo)
Maria Candelaria and Bobby August. (Made Up Theatre photo)

The connection between August and Candelaria is at the heart of how the story is told. With some wonderful pacing guided by Chua’s steady directing hand, both actors do a wonderful job of simply listening with Meisnerish intent.

Notice how alive Candelaria’s eyes are. They are lovely, with her principal mission to react. Both actors give each other a lot to work with in such intimate scenes, finding some ridiculously alive humor as well as darkness that envelops the space, both characters using plenty of sardonic wit through Joseph’s compelling script. August is an especially appealing performer in both his improvisation and his straight acting, certainly grasping each moment as it comes.

Now did I feel every emotional demand was met? No. There were certainly moments where it felt the transitional beats could have gone a bit further. And unfortunately, the run of the show is short, because I am certainly curious as to what discoveries could be made if It was longer, allowing August and Candelaria to live with their characters further. And as an addendum, this production features an intermission, where the original staging did not. Purely from a view of continuity, getting rid of the intermission is something I would be curious about.

What works so well is the play tells such a compelling story, one that makes you look at how our injuries connect us. One time I accidentally hit my girlfriend with a baseball square in the eye, an pop fly gone very bad. That was on a Monday. The following Friday, I proposed to her, seeing her joyous tears escape through a still healing black eye.

These experiences that hurt us, both literally and metaphorically, shape who we are. And through the pain of loss and the wonderment of love, the best healing that takes place can surely come in the form of the soft shoulder of an old friend – a shoulder where a girl can just simply rest her head after a long, long day.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Made Up Theatre presents “Gruesome Playground Injuries”
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Iu-Hui Chua
Featuring Bobby August and Maria Candelaria
The Word: A wonderfully intimate production that brings the audience close to the stories of pain, friendship and love.
Running time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Made Up Theatre
3392 Seldon Court, Fremont, CA 94539
Tickets range from $15 – $20
For tickets, call (510) 573-3633 or visit www.madeuptheatre.com

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