Theatre Review: ‘Tender Napalm’ at Signature Theatre
Lust. War. Sadism. Love. And Unicorns.
What do you get when you gently push a hand grenade, with the pin yet pulled, into a…vulnerable body part?
Some might call that a modern love story.
What do you get when you disconnect your lover’s family jewels and flush them down the toilet?
Others might call that a romance for the modern age.
Whatever Tender Napalm is, and it is now playing at the Ark at Signature Theatre, you are sure to be partially engrossed by the sheer audacity of the piece, partially confused by the piece’s structural anomalies, and partially enraged by what playwright Philip Ridley has elected not to tell you (or perhaps what he decided to tell you but only at the end, thus throwing the piece into a deluge of questions and after-thoughts).
Except for the final scene, in which the characters are offered to the audience as tender, sweet teenagers in a “realistic” setting, Tender Napalm is a playwright’s piece: full of who can top this funny word play, egocentric razzle dazzle flights of the imagination, and “is this child’s play disguising itself as symptoms of PTSD” or “is this PTSD pretending to be a fun filled lovers’ dual between the sheets”?
The story is this: two actors–one male, one female–are trapped in an arena surrounded by a live audience (think Star Trek, Alternative Universe, two Lazaruses) doomed to fight each other for all eternity in some psychic landscape.
The two actors play working class Londoners; yet, both seem well educated, verbally astute and provocative, with powerful imaginations.
The two characters are sexually intimate, sexually crude, sexually violent, and competitive.
The two characters are emotionally damaged, given to psychic breakdowns when they let their imaginations fly too rapidly too far.
Finally, the two character might have had a child, or wanted a child, or thought a child would make things right or whole; but they no longer have a child, or want a child, or think a child will make things whole.
The two characters are, in a sentence (except for that final scene) two actors playing characters, detached from any history, any social context, any geo-political territory (save what their accents might provide), any family and friends, any “anything.”
Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir play this doomed pair of lovers with ferocious abandon. They capture not only the pair’s sadomasochistic toying with each other but also their occasional longing for a different world.
Zafir starts us off by proclaiming to his acting partner, albeit character-partner in psychic space, that he wants to press a bullet between her wet lips. From there, his character only escalates his verbal, imaginative challenge. Zafir’s performance is an athletic tour de force.
…an unholy conflation of lust, brutality, hate, savagery, tenderness, despair, fantasy, hope, ambition, war, and (yes) love
Though pained by Zafir’s crude foreplay, Harris accepts the challenge, and with feminine understatement tells her partner that if he likes grenades in the bedroom, she likes sharp things and has no qualms about using them. Harris’s performance as the teenager grown hard and cruel by the world is emotionally riveting.
The two actors send this dramatic game of The Dozens to poetically vulgar heights.
Matthew Gardiner has handled Ridley’s script and the in-the-round staging at Signature well. For the most part he keeps the action moving, opening the actors to all parts of the audience. He successfully balances the savage and the tender, even if from this viewer’s perspective in the end the level of cruelty overshadowed the tenderness.
The production team did a strong job. Set designer Luciana Stecconi’s arena of light created the perfect platform for this “naked” performance, i.e., performance without a situation other than the act of performance itself. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills offered subtle lighting shifts that did not so much delineate the real from the imagined (if such a delineation exists) as suggest a change in direction. Laree Lentz gives the actors very average, somewhat distressed clothes that give full rein to the actors’ athleticism.
Of particular interest was the sound design and original compositions by Eric Shimelonis, which suggest a war zone and a fierce combat.
In Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach” a couple embraces in their bed while outside the ocean waves and human history swells into conflict. He writes:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
And so it seems that Philip Ridley has given us a couple, embracing in their bed as on a desert island. Whereas Arnold has his lovers cling to one another in an attempt to escape the brutality of the world beyond the window, Ridley’s lovers have become infected by the world around them. The war, the torture, the violence, the willful inflicting of pain upon the other, has turned their once tender, innocent tryst at a garden party into a brutal sex game where the experience of pain, and more pain, has replaced any release of pain into pleasure.
If Ridley’s Tender Napalm gives us the shape of love in the modern world, where unicorns lead us not to happiness but to unflinching terror, then we can only grit our teeth and weep for the modern world.
If, on the other hand, Tender Napalm offers us a poetic landscape of our psychic existence–an unholy conflation of lust, brutality, hate, savagery, tenderness, despair, fantasy, hope, ambition, war, and (yes) love–then we can seriously say it is time to stop compartmentalizing our lives.
Rather, it is time to acknowledge that no couple is an island and that what happens in the world around us will permeate every niche and crevice of our private spaces, infecting our “happy” world with its goings and comings and dyings and agonies. So prepare.
‘Tender Napalm’ at Signature Theatre can be hard to watch, but you can’t look away
For some audiences, enduring the first few minutes of the terribly titled “Tender Napalm” will take nerve. The language in this peculiar romantic blowup by British dramatist Philip Ridley is so strafing that during Sunday night’s opening at Signature Theatre, you could see audience members flinching and averting their eyes.
The show is being staged (superbly) in Signature’s small Ark space, with seating only three rows deep surrounding a raised stage the size of a boxing ring. That’s where two figures — Man and Woman — purr and shout at one another their pornographic, militaristic love talk.
“Your lips,” goes an early subject starter, cooed with affection. Yet what follows is poetic imagery involving a bullet. Very quickly, the named body parts and the suggested artillery deployment grow more explosive.
Mere shock value? Not entirely. Ridley, whose creepy “The Pitchfork Disney” appeared at Woolly Mammoth once upon a time, creates a verbally dense picture of this nameless couple as emotional castaways clinging to each other at all costs. They role-play and fight for control of their narrative; with a nod to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” they agree to certain rules amid all their make-believe. Their elaborate stories involve sea serpents, aliens, tsunamis.
Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir deliver these crazy fantasies like chess players, listening like thieves and fixing each other with strategizing stares — that is, when they’re not caressing like lovers or brawling like wrestlers. It’s an emotional play, running the gamut from grief to ecstasy in long, fantastical speeches. Harris and Zafir hit all the feral marks while cagily thinking their way through Ridley’s puzzle.
That overarching keen intelligence, from pacing to inflection (which here includes East London accents), seems to be a hallmark of Matthew Gardiner’s direction. Gardiner, Signature’s associate artistic director, puts on a good show no matter the material, from brassy musicals such as “Xanadu” and “Dreamgirls” to a string of taut, intimate dramas — “Really Really,” “Dying City” and now this — that have all been first-rate in execution.
Here Gardiner and set designer Luciana Stecconi give Harris and Zafir an attractively abstract environment for their wild excursions. That boxing-ring-shaped stage is perched on a handsome frame of what looks like driftwood, and the glossy stage floor has a watery green sheen, with light (by Colin K. Bills) sometimes beaming up from underneath. Barefoot and wearing jeans and shirts with three-quarter sleeves from costume designer Laree Lentz, the actors look stuck on a desert island.
“Shipwrecked,” one of them says, and the design bears it out.
It’s lucky the performances and design — including richly atmospheric sound and music by Eric Shimelonis that at one point features a trippy, slowed-down riff on a famous Erik Satie melody — are so inviting, because Ridley’s play never really grows easy. It does warm up considerably, however. The consensual violent imagery of the opening moments quickly becomes a battleground that gets both more and less real as the man describes his epic conquest of their territory, say, while she details her own triumphs, including a grisly amputation guaranteed to generate more grimaces. Somehow the net effect is the creation of an unexpectedly sympathetic relationship.
Harris and Zafir necessarily do the heaviest lifting, and they are so personable and so seemingly connected that they pull it off. As tricky and even as repulsive as Ridley’s script can be, they keep you listening.
I’d like to say that Philip Ridley’s new play Tender Napalm tells the story of two lovers trying to help each other recover from a traumatic event, possibly the death of their child, perhaps in a terrorist attack; but to say the play tells the story of anything is to ignore what the play suggests about words — that they’re more than telling tools. They can describe reality, yes, at least to some extent; but they can also relieve reality, and replace reality, and maybe restore reality.
What makes it possible for words to do that in this play is the sort of love that ruins everything, exquisitely.
This much we can say: Man and Woman, played by Elan Zafir and Laura C. Harris with the kind of fury that puts everything at stake at every moment, are stuck in a box, maybe ten feet by twenty feet, with low sides made of stacked boards or slabs of stone. It looks like a rink, or a pool. The surface is plexiglass over squares with blue lights in them. Sometimes the lights turn white or gold. I thought of an air-hockey table.
The box is the place where loving uncontrollably has left them, with nothing but their clothes and their bodies and words, to use as they will. They use them to utter desire and fear and anger and hope and regret all at once, because they can and they must.
They take turns. “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,” he says. “Point first. Press it between those rosebud lips. Prise it between your pearly whites. Gently. I wouldn’t break a single tooth.”
When it’s her turn, she says she could plop out one of his eyeballs with a screw, but we understand that she doesn’t want to do what she says, that it’s a saying, not a meaning, the sort of thing that loving with reckless abandon might allow you to say, or condemn you to say, when you reach the place that you can get to only by loving that way, where you’ll be stranded.
He says that they’re stranded there. “Have you ever seen the sea so blue since we’ve been stranded here?” he asks. She doesn’t answer because he didn’t speak those words to find out whether she had ever seen the sea so blue.
We can say that something in their life exploded. “Did you hear the bomb that killed her?” Man asks Woman. Each of them talks about putting explosive devices into the other’s body, which I would take as evidence that neither of them built the bomb that blew up in their lives, and I don’t think love built it either, but love opened all their doors at once, allowing everything to enter them, including the kind of shrapnel that doesn’t injure people who can close their doors.
We can infer that they were wounded by that explosion, and that they can’t go back to whatever may be left of their exploded lives until they heal, and that they’re trying to heal themselves by touching and dancing and talking. Each of them spins out a violent tale of deliverance which bears little relation to lives that people really live, using language that’s comprehensible but not coherent, meaning that it isn’t trying to say something, but rather trying to release what can’t be said.
The tales they tell have an obliging power: if she says she found him sleeping in a pool of piss and vomit, he has to get out of that pool. If he says a tsunami washed her out to sea, she has to survive in the water. And if she gets in too deep, he has to remind her that she made herself Poseidon’s daughter, so it isn’t possible for her to drown — or else she will.
In one story, she decides to cut off his member with a pair of garden shears, and you wonder why, since they clearly hunger for each other. “It looks like a button mushroom in a Brillo pad,” she says. But it doesn’t work to ask why in this context, because conventional narrative coherence is part of the world these characters have left behind — the world they’ve lost or the world from which they’ve escaped.“We’re here to approach the intolerable,” they might explain if we asked why, “to get as close to it as we can, to go past the point of no return, and then pull each other back and go again. You can’t do that with words that have to be attached to literal reality.”
At the end of the play, the characters seem to return to literal reality: they re-enact the day they met, in conventional realistic terms. And you wonder if this return to realism is what will finally deliver them from the place where reckless love has left them stranded. And maybe it will someday. Deliver them or banish them. They might prefer to stay.
“My love,” woman says at the end. And Man answers, “My love.”