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Theatre Review (Singapore): Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph

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World-In-Theatre presented Gruesome Playground Injuries on the 27th and 28th of April 2013 at the Black Box Theatre in Goodman Arts Centre.

Gruesome Playground Injuries is a two-person performance that traces the relationship between injury-prone risk-taker Doug (Musa Fazal) and disturbed Kayleen (Tania Mukherjee) who comes from a broken family and cuts herself periodically. The two characters meet as kids at a playground, only to part ways and get re-acquainted at various points during their adulthood. Whilst there is love, or at the very least a crush on Doug’s part that he makes obviously clear to Kaylene, she keeps whatever affection she has for him under wraps for most of the time. As both characters mature and grow, their relationship reveals a bond – one that is complicated and ambiguous.

Rajiv Joseph’s play about the relationship between two people from the age of eight to 38 does touch on many interesting and even titillating experiences, such as Kaylene’s lack of a real family and her constant cutting, and Doug’s affinity with danger and almost yearning to harm himself just like Kaylene does. However, none of these issues is delved into satisfactorily, nor is enough insight given into these important topics, which are merely alluded to in the play. One wishes that Joseph had given more depth to the characters by examining Kaylene’s and Doug’s unusual inclinations.

Therein lies the difficulty of acting in and directing a play like Gruesome, which doesn’t give much by way of details, so that it relies on the performance of the artists more than might be the case in other plays. And that’s where this production faltered.

Mukherjee’s acting was a bit over the top; she over-used a scowl, and was not able to employ enough variety in her dialogue delivery and facial expressions. Her performance was rather contrived as a result, and not natural. Fazal fared better, as he kept his expressions a little varied but subtle, without crossing into over-acting, and although both actors had a drawl that was a tad annoying especially when they played the characters at a younger age, Fazal was more believable in his role as the wacky and irresponsible Doug than Mukherjee was in hers. However at some pivotal moments, Fazal’s performance and delivery wasn’t energetic enough and didn’t entice or pull in the audience enough.

The problem may just be that the roles in Gruesome call for actors with a wide range of emotions, expressions, body language, gestures and delivery, who can captivate the audience with a layered performance, and be convincing whether they are playing eight-year-olds or 38-year-olds. In other words, these roles were not suitable for such new thespians as Mukherjee and Fazal, who both need to build up their experience and skills before attempting to play such characters.

Directed by Susan Penrice Tyrie, the actors made good use of the stage and props even if Tyrie seemed unable to get the required level of performance from both actors. However, having the actors change their attires and makeup right in front of the audience was a bit disconcerting and seemed to be purposeless.

Gruesome is indeed an “actors’ play,” and unfortunately in this case there was a mismatch between the actors and the platform.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.