By Jordan Wright (Photo/Christopher Mueller)
Two characters, known simply as Man and Woman, are the sole characters in “Tender Napalm,” an otherwise complex and powerful drama by British playwright Philip Ridley.
It is a love story of young Londoners who have experienced an extraordinary loss, and a trip deep into the heart of a relationship fraught with all the perils and passions of youth.
The East Enders meet at a lavish party in the gardens of a spectacular mansion and their courtship unfolds in a relatively straightforward fashion. But director Matthew Gardiner adds a bit of foreshadowing in his introduction to the play, explaining that “to be in love with another person is to feel a wide range of emotions: enchantment, ecstasy, animosity, fear and doubt.” Ridley uses intense physicality to convey all of these conflicting emotions in “Tender Napalm.”
Elan Zafir, who embodies a huge, almost superhero-esque physicality, plays Man to Laura Harris’s sylph-like Woman — a deliberate choice that depicts the lovers as emotionally and physically opposite. But it’s not a competition of brawn over beauty. Our heroine is just as intense and savvy an opponent.
The play is presented in snippets and flashbacks. In one bumbling effort to express his sexual desire, Man tells Woman, “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips.” Woman later co-opts this crass sentiment, suggesting a hand grenade would achieve the same effect.
Calling her his muse and expressing his love, Man tells Woman, “I’d like to be a tree full of doves, pushing my branches around you.” She responds by calling him “my snare” and blowing him off. Push and pull. Back and forth.
In their drive to establish their separate identities and assert dominance over one another, Woman invents a desert island where she is Queen of the Monkeys. She threatens Man, telling him the monkeys will do her bidding and terrorizes him with her eagerness to destroy him in order to establish her power. Not to be challenged, Man launches a counteroffensive and they fight over who rules their fantasy island, each looking to gain the upper hand.
The play is seeded with symbols: a cave where Woman can control Man; unicorns as escapism; UFOs representing the unknown; and a man-eating sea serpent standing in for the concept of death and rebirth.
Ridley presents Man as the conqueror, an unrelenting warrior, protector of Woman and slayer of the serpent. Meanwhile, Woman uses her powers as controller, consoler and arbiter in the battle of the sexes. In one scene Man tells her of imaginary aliens who abduct him, claiming it is not in their DNA to kill. They give him a spaceship filled with atom bombs and he regales Woman with his courageousness.
“Bombs away! I’m killing everything I see,” he brags to her as he rat-a-tat-tats his way around the stage.
Yet the play also has moments of deep tenderness and unconditional surrender — such as when the lovers step away from their egos and submit to one another.
Sounds of explosions, earthquake rumblings and the screech of rewind help to reset the action as the lovers’ emotions swing wildly from love and lust to hate and envy. Ultimately it is the force of Ridley’s extraordinary play, performed by two brilliant performers on a simple stage with no props and no scenery, that captivates.
Raw, erotic and riveting, “Tender Napalm” is a must see.
“Tender Napalm” runs through May 11 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. For tickets and information call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.