Apr. 8—WHITEWATER — Solidarity through scarring.
Connected by crutches.
Bonded with bandages.
No matter how theater- goers describe the darkly humorous themes that feed Rajiv Joseph's "Gruesome Playground Injuries," they will likely leave the off-beat play about friendship with an odd sense of familiarity and confused understanding.
At least, that's what Matt Denny is expecting.
"It's a story about a relationship between two childhood friends who, over the course of 30 years, keep reconnecting over injuries," said Denny, a former high school theater teacher and current UW-Whitewater graduate student.
"Their friendship starts in the nurse's office at school, and it just continues to progress over the years. But it's not just about the relationship between these two people. It's also about what friendship does to all of us inside the human condition. "
Denny is directing the local production of the two-character play, which is being filmed inside the Whitewater Arts Alliance, 402 W. Main St. A virtual presentation will be available for viewing from 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, to 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, and pay-what-you-can tickets can be found at Gazettextra.com /Gruesome.
The production's two lead characters, Doug and Kayleen, are played by respectively by Johnathon Krautkramer and Fort Atkinson native Alyssa Hannam. As Denny notes, the characters meet young, and their friendship grows over the course of some rather ghastly afflictions.
"They meet when they're 8, and Doug believes Kayleen has the power to, in a sense, heal him," Denny said. "So every time Doug gets hurt, Kayleen comes running—no matter where she is in her life. So we ask, is that love, or is it the feeling of 'I need to save this person?'"
The story finds balance in that Doug's injuries lean toward things such as breaking bones, having teeth knocked out and losing an eye to fireworks. Conversely, Kayleen's struggles trend internally.
"Doug's injuries are what you'd expect; stupid injuries from jumping off the school roof because he felt like doing it one day," Denny said. "Kayleen suffers from mental illness, depression and anxiety. She eventually develops a condition where she starts throwing up at random times each day, and at one point she starts cutting herself because she feels she can't take life and that she's just not enough.
"But Kayleen is one of those people who, even though she is suffering, still has the energy to give to others."
Aside from presenting one of his favorite plays, Denny said his drive behind presenting the show is to keep art in front of audiences hungry for entertainment due to isolation from COVID-19.
"The reason theater is so important is because it is shaped by our environment. Art and culture never stops," he said. "Right now, our culture is evolving within this pandemic. In fact, we acknowledge COVID-19 as a character in our play because it's a real thing and something we should care very deeply about."
So are the complexities of friendship. And though frustration can sometimes run concurrent to reward, maintaining those relationships is what makes life worthwhile.
"I tell people that, if you have a childhood friend you're still friends with, you will relate to this play," Denny said.