BWW Reviews: Signature's Sexually Charged TENDER NAPALM Runs the Emotional Gamut
Philip Ridley's sexually charged, emotionally intense Tender Napalm, currently making its Washington premiere at Signature Theatre, may first appear paralyzed in erotic ambiguity. As the evening progresses and the couple simply known as Woman (Laura Harris) and Man (Elan Zafir) comes to terms with a change in their relationship, a volatile mixture of love, longing and sentimentality erupt inside Signature's Ark Theatre.
We don't know their names, except that they are to be called Woman and Man, and little is given about their background and history. Judging by their cockney accents, ones which would drive Henry Higgins mad, they are British in origin. We also know something has happened that led to their isolation. Whether it was self-imposed or not, that's up for debate.
Many potential reasons are given: tsunami, shipwreck, war. To deal with the situation they pass the time arguing, sexually exploring their relationship, engaging in child-like fantasies and, once again, arguing. Ridley's cunning is his ability to not give away too much, too fast in Tender Napalm. That being said, his script does become repetitive and exhausting.
A large portion of Tender Napalm consists of Woman and Man fighting with each other. Much is revealed in these moments, but the arguments tend to be quite formulaic. They often center around nostalgia for happier moments in their lives, domination (both sexually and emotionally) of each other and a desire to come to terms with their isolation. After the first hour of this 90 minute play, these moments become exhausting, making the play seem restless.
However, even when the script gets tired, Ridley is able to breath new life into the play. The last 15 minutes are poetic in nature and Director Matthew Gardiner has done well to make the conclusion seem almost balletic and graceful. We get to see that underneath the passion and sex, there's more to Woman and Man. When we finally grasp their situation in its entirety, their isolation doesn't seem incomprehensible.
There is a raw quality to the emotional and physical relationship of Woman and Man, and Harris and Zafir do a phenomenal job exploring this couple. Ridley's script resembles an onion, where the more layers we peal back the more we learn. Together, Harris and Zafir give organic performances. With each insult, kiss, embrace, pursuit and clash, we see their relationship reach a new level of depth. Separately, each comes to terms with the situation they've been given. When we finally do understand what is driving their relationship, it's fascinating to watch Harris and Zafir come together as couple.
In combination with Ridley's script, Gardiner's skillful direction and Luciana Stecconi's eerie set design give this production an exciting edginess. Those familiar with the Ark Theatre as the venue for Signature's cabaret performances will be shocked at the design for Tender Napalm. Gone are the chic tables with candles and black-brick wall, now transformed into an in-the-round configuration. Behind the seats, plywood panels have been placed on the walls similar to the kind seen in hurricane or war-ravaged neighborhoods. There in the center of the theater, standing in a wooden rectangular box, two feet off the ground with a plexi-glass floor lit from underneath, is where we meet Woman and Man.
The stage almost has the feeling of a boxing ring, and Gardiner's direction has Harris and Zafir maximizing the space. There are moments when we almost feel as if they're going to break the fourth wall and take the action into the seats.
Adding to the production's feeling of remoteness is Laree Lentz costume design, dressing Woman and Man in clothing ensembles that resemble those from the television show Lost. Woman is clad in peddle pusher jeans, a black bra and white blouse. Man is in cargo pants and a brick-red long-sleeve shirt. Their clothes seem as if they haven't been washed in ages and maybe the only outfits they have.
Eric Shimelonis sound design and Collin Bills lighting design work together to highlight the emotional impacts of each argument. Whether through a blast of white light lit from underneath the stage, or the impressive sound of a bomb detonating, the designs add to our desire to explore the story further.
Although Ridley's script is repetitive, the acting, direction, and design elements of this show make this a solid production for Signature.
Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Please note: Adult language and no re-entry or late seating. Tender Napalm plays thru May 11th at Signature Theater 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.