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Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Signature Theatre Tender Napalm

By • Mar 26th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Tender Napalm
Signature Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through May 11th
90 minutes without intermission
$39-$86 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed March 22nd, 2014

What a jolt! What a rush! What mayhem being dished up.

I had just witnessed a gripping, brutal mixed martial arts battle at Signature Theater. It was chock full of verbal strikes and grappling, spoken punches and jabs, uttered thrusts and parries as two characters, He and She circled each other, taking their measure of one another. They were caged together, each holding the other’s leash.

There was not a visible wall in sight to keep the two from escaping one another. They didn’t want to.

At the very same performance, from the same two characters, I witnessed tender acts of generous protection and unconditional love. The two made sure that things did not totally fall apart so that only one would be victorious; only one left standing and breathing. They needed each other so much. The alternative was to be alone to live with demons that would have consumed them.

What was it that left such a strong impression? Signature’s production of Tender Napalm, a 2012 work written by British playwright Philip Ripley. Ripley is a rare sighting in the DC area. According to the Signature marketing material the last seen of his work, The Pitchfork Disney, was produced about two decades ago by Woolly Mammoth. Ripley seems to be known as an “In-Yer-Face” provocateur. Now that is no understatement.

“I imagine this play as the headspace between two people who have been in a long relationship,” stated Tender Napalm director Matthew Gardiner (Signature Theatre’s Really Really and Dreamgirls; Ford’s Theatre’s The Laramie Project), “As if two people who are so close could dream or have a nightmare together. It is the place where they are able to fully speak their minds. Philip Ridley seeks to reinvent the language of love, and the results are stunning.” Gardiner delivered the goods.

Tender Napalm features Laura C. Harris (Bachelorette at Studio Theatre; Seminar at Round House Theatre; The Winter’s Tale at Folger Theatre) as She and Elan Zafir (Off-Broadway in Romeo & Juliet, Inner Workings of Man, Peter Pan) as He. They are nameless in the production. Both are making their Signature Theatre debuts. They are matched well visually; she petite in stature with eyes that carry strength and hurt, while he has a softness often hidden under a gruff exterior. They are both fearless and believable.

So, what is the story line your reviewer writes about so breathlessly? Let’s have Mr. Ridley speak for himself. “In essence, it’s a very simple theatrical story: a man and a woman are locked at a crucial point in their relationship. They love each other but something terrible has happened.” His two very damaged people do what they must to survive.

Ripley has created a number of connected playlets of a few minutes length each to make up a 90 minute, intermission-free whole. It is a balanced power between the characters. Each has the opportunity to take the lead, even at times providing stage directions to the other. It works as they thrust and parry, but always on the look-out to rescue one another. Some might see the characters presenting just special fetishes; others might see a ritualistic game of switching Dominance and Submission.

The couple had met years before as teenagers, quickly fell in love, and seemed to have had and lost a young daughter. Now they find themselves adrift on an island, somewhere between real life and imaginary worlds after a tsunami has destroyed everything. They are, or see themselves, as alone as survivors with monkeys, sea serpents, UFO’s, as well as creepy visions and a wonderfully sweet story of unicorns.

Under Gardiner’s tight, unyielding vision for Tender Napalm, there is a remarkable physicality. Nothing is static, even when the cast is just sitting. There are scenes of great menace, of eye-popping destructive fantasy, as well as absolute tenderness. In a blink, power in the production is seamlessly exchanged between the two actors.

The scenic design by Luciana Stecconi is a boxing ring set square in the middle of the ARK about a foot off the floor. There are no ropes surrounding the ring to keep the action contained. The two characters do that all on their own. The floor of the ring has a glossy sheen through which under-lighting from Colin K. Bills changes the atmospherics. Laree Lentz’s costumes are loose-fitting garments; Harris in jeans and a delicate top and Zafir in a three-button cotton pullover and khaki slacks. Their outfits give them an everyday appearance. Neither has a domineering outward appearance.

This is a challenging play for mature audiences. No doubt about that. Be warned, some language may seem offensive, but stick with it. This is certainly a production in which ritualistic anger can seem to rule, with verbal skills replacing physical contact. But it works. There is balance between the two characters. Each has the opportunity to be a top. Zafir gets to be King for a time, and Harris an opportunity to be Queen.

Ripley’s Tender Napalm fascinates because there is a special kind of shared devotion at its core even with the frenetic life the audiences witnesses. It works because of sweet moments such as near the end. We are watching the couple languidly dances together, if only for a few fleeting seconds. They dance to a snippet of what sounds like variations on the melancholy of Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies.”

Tender Napalm will rivet an adventuresome audience because Ripley’s characters and story have a complexity to chew on. It is far from quiet moonlight reflecting on a placid sound in summer. But, in its own way, is it so far from the reality that we may occasionally think in our heads, but dare not speak?

Note: Tender Napalm contains strong language; for mature audiences only.

Photo Gallery

Elan Zafir and Laura C. Harris Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir
Elan Zafir and Laura C. Harris
Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir
Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir
Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir

Photos by Christopher Mueller

Cast

  • Woman: Laura C. Harris
  • Man: Elan Zafir

Creative and Design Team

  • Directed: Matthew Gardiner
  • Scenic Design: Luciana Stecconi
  • Costume Design: Laree Lentz
  • Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
  • Sound Design and Original Compositions: Eric Shimelonis
  • Production Stage Manager: Julie Meyer

Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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