By Alli Cruz
I often wonder about the peculiar connections we make between love and pain: love as an agonizing sickness, love as an arrow-shaped wound, love as a torture of sorts. These two forces, though seemingly antithetical, feel inextricably linked.
Stanford Theater Lab ties this link, between love and pain, together through an intimate and confrontational production of “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph. Told through a series of scene-specific time jumps, the show follows the story of two childhood-friends-turned-lovers as they find each other, both literally and figuratively, broken, bruised and beaten.
Joseph’s script — which is as emotionally gruesome as the title suggests in its exploration of illness, sexual assault and self-harm — lends itself easily to an investigation of human suffering and dejection. But this production refuses to lean into a simplistic interpretation of the narrative; what underlies Stanford Theater Lab’s “Gruesome” is a sense of love, of compassion, of support, in the face of the most dark, gruesome, painful realities of the human experience.
This palpable sense of heart arises from the intensely intimate nature of the production. In my experience, two-person shows, like this, often engender a unique sort of closeness from character to character, and character to audience. I understand this connection especially during the transitional scenes, in which Doug (Gracie Goheen ‘20) and Kayleen (Lillian Bornstein ‘18) smile and laugh together — adding a sense of ease and lightness to this rather heavy show — all while making costume changes and splattering paint, in the shape of wounds, on each other. There is a certain messiness to the show, surely, but it is from this hurried and quickened pace, this paint-strewn chaos, that a sense of reality comes to the forefront. The message is clear: life is messy, but we, like Doug and Kayleen, are somehow connected by this sticky, paint-like, amorphous mess.
I am particularly interested in the production’s unique use of color. Stanford Theater Lab could have easily, in my opinion, overemphasized the evocative image of blood-red stains, but instead, chose a more colorful palette. To represent physical wounds, Goheen and Bornstein coat each other in the blue, yellow and red paint. I find it especially resonant that Goheen and Bornstein paint each other, instead of performing this action on their own, as it suggests a shared sense of pain between the characters, perhaps as if their injuries — and subsequently, the ways in which they must heal — are somehow linked. I also wonder at the idea of wounds taking on a certain brightness of color — not as a beautified romanticization of pain, but as a suggestion that not all wounds look the same, and maybe more importantly, not all wounds look like wounds.
The actors themselves, Goheen and Bornstein, only wear black clothing, which nicely paints them as a sort of representation of the everyman. Their characters’ stories, though emotionally specific, feel, in a sense, general and very much human.
The balance between darkness and light manifests itself not only in the physical color patterns, but also, grippingly, through the actors. In the first scene, in which the characters appear as young children, Goheen utilizes her body to act like a boisterous young child. She heightens her voice to create a sense of lightness and naivety; her movements become quick and broad, too, like a child’s, and this is particularly exciting as she pantomimes riding a bicycle across the stage, whirring as she goes. Her character, in this scene, recovers from injuries sustained after biking off of the school’s roof.
Bornstein, on the other hand, in the first scene, adopts a shy, childlike demeanor, at times slouching her body into herself. By the end of the scene, she stands firmer, with a curious look in her eye as she reaches towards Doug’s wound, asking if she can touch it.
The subject of healing is, perhaps ironically, a painful aspect in the show, particularly in its conclusion that we, much like Doug and Kayleen, can do little to heal the trauma inflicted on our loved ones. In one scene, Doug lets out a shrill scream, her eyes widening and hands grabbing fistfuls of her own hair as she finds out about Kayleen’s assault. In another scene, Bornstein as Kayleen vacillates between pleading, crying, laughing and reminiscing as she paces around a hospital room where Doug lies, nearly brain-dead after another life-threatening accident.
In perhaps one of the most gripping scenes, Doug drops her pants and pleads for Kayleen to gash a wound on her upper thigh, an injury which would mirror the ways in which Kayleen herself practices self-harm. It is difficult to watch — after Bornstein mimics slicing into Goheen’s leg — as Goheen cries out, looks up and stares at Bornstein, her eyes wide and mouth agape in horror, pain and disbelief. This attempt to take on another’s pain, to try to understand how they hurt, is futile. The scene ends with Goheen shaking in place, her character unable to find the words to describe this private, brutal injury.
Overall, this production, from with its pre-show music (which showcased songs like “Kiss with a Fist” by Florence + the Machine) to its wound-heavy imagery, plays up that aforementioned link between love and pain. For me, watching Bornstein, in particular, touch Doug’s wounds in different scenes suggests a sense of tenderness in the confrontation of pain. This act of touching the source of another person’s trauma is brutally vulnerable, and it leads me to wonder if perhaps love and pain are not so much synonymous as they are co-existent, in a way. It’s not so much that love is pain, but that love cannot be love unless it accepts, confronts and deals with pain.
In this painstakingly thoughtful production, Stanford Theater Lab creates a beautifully stitched narrative of hope, love and resilience. I like to think of this type of experimental, confrontational art as transformative. I like to think of “Gruesome Playground Injuries” as having been a healing experience in and of itself.