“Does it hurt?” Kayleen (Beth Harris) asks Doug (Jens Rasmussen) that question repeatedly in Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries at Know Theatre. We observe their intersections at various moments in their lives between the ages of 8 and 38. In the first scene (age 8) his cheek is split open following an Evel Knievel bike-jump off the school roof; in scene two (age 23) an errant firework has blown out his eye.
And so it goes, a pair of lost souls, a masochistic daredevil and a depressive self-hater. But they have a bond: Her presence seems to heal him, and his odd behavior breaks through her wary exterior despite her steady stream of disdain.
Joseph, a 1996 Miami University grad whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was short-listed for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, has envisioned a world of pain for this pair that ultimately feels tender and intimate.
The meet in sterile rooms — a nurse’s office in a parochial school to a hospital room where he lies in a coma after being struck by lightning — but genuine if twisted emotion is the regular result. Know has reconfigured its theater space (with comfortable new seats) for a wide stage allowing for three side-by-side playing areas. I’m not sure all are necessary, but they enable an easy flow from moment to moment.
Harris and Rasmussen change clothes and make-up in full view of the audience, enhanced by video and music, which allows for some distance between incidents and diminishes the shocking nature of mutilation. This show reunites the actors with director Drew Fracher; a year ago they created Skin Tight, the best production of Know’s previous season.
If subsequent shows are as gripping and off-kilter as this one in which humor and pathos constantly elbow one another, Know will deliver on its annual promise of edgy theater. And that doesn’t hurt at all.
GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 5. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.