By Constance Rodgers
Tender napalm? Is that phrase an oxymoron? British playwright, Philip Ridley’s play, Tender Napalm, (original production 2011 London’s Southwark Playhouse) examines how both destructive and compassionate actions, or at least thoughts, are unavoidable in a sexually passionate pas des deux. But most importantly that aggressive thoughts are necessary to cope with the unfairness of life and to preserve one’s sanity in an insane world. Reviews for previous productions of Tender Napalm see the work as solely about the complicated relationships between men and women. The two locked together in a doomed, resentful, sexually charged coupling ala George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Though certainly that is an aspect of Ridley’s play I think it is just the familiar vehicle he used to show us that having violent thoughts when facing the unjust realities inherent in life, and the despicable conditions imposed by society, is not crazy. These fantasies are needed, or we will explode and self-immolate. The couple in the play work together to keep each other sane by allowing each in turn to take a hard, ugly shot at the other and then to both recover with gentle dreams and memories.
The play is presented on a bare stage with eerie florescent overhead lighting, and one simple and magical prop, a piece of white chiffon. The two actors WOMAN (Ayana Major Bey) and MAN (Amara James Aja) are wearing only black under garments. Director David Norwood‘s brilliant Growtowski like stripped bare rendition of Tender Napalm allows the actors and audience to focus on what is important and vital, the words Ridley wrote and the relationship these two masterful actors create from them. We witness a woman and a man helping each other with the cruelty and meaninglessness of life after the death of their five year old daughter. Or, are they The Woman and The Man, sole survivors of an apocalypse, desperately trying to keep each other alive and sane so that neither one ends up totally alone and mad in the desert island world? Or, is this Everywoman and Everyman fighting with the demons their lust, desire, need and love for each other have awakened?
Tender Napalm is all of the above, and Bey and Aja explore and deliver to us every scary, explosive, embarrassing, tragic, passionate, melancholic, caring, gentle, burning feeling you can imagine between two people facing the end of the world or each other. The couple play games, switching between the roles of dominant and subservient. One game, “Have You Seen the View”, allows each to respectively imagine and profess proudly what life will be like when they are in control, yet also has them tenderly revisit the beginnings of their relationship when power plays were unimaginable and the world still perfect. Another game, “Do You Know What I am Going To Do?”, lets woman and man, man first of course, release the resentment and hatred felt when their bodies so desperately want to possess another. The violent fantasies of what they will do to each other are extreme, at first repugnant, but the dance is familiar and undeniable. Put yourself in their shoes. They have lost the world; their daughter has been taken from them; they have lost themselves to the other.
Bey and Aja are excellent. The intimacy they create with each other allows us to relax, to watch without feeling like we are snooping, because we are not there. The language of Tender Napalm is heightened but the movement simple, mimicking the feelings and intent of the words. There are many moments when one character is listening to the other for quite a long time. Both Bey and Aja are as interesting and alive while listening as when speaking. They are two of the most intelligent and committed actors I have seen this year and I will be looking for them from now on.
The production team for Tender Napalm at New York’s HERE Arts Center makes a point in its press release to tell us that this is a re-envisioned American version of the play, set on the East Coast, and with permission of the author has cast the two character play with African-American actors. I do not understand why where the action is located or what race or ethnicity the couple are matters. The script has no setting or location description, and WOMAN and MAN have no physical description. The location is earth and the couple all of us.
This is a contemporary play that will become a classic. You can count on the works at HERE to be innovative and thought provoking. I recommend this particular production of Tender Napalm to all theatre professionals. Run to experience a true example of how powerful just the bare necessities of theatre are (story and storyteller) when in the minds and hands of passionate artists like Ridley, Norwood, Bey and Aja.
Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley; Direction and Design by David Norwood
Cast: Ayana Major Bey, Amara James Aja
Produced by Ayana Parker Morrison, Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier; Original Music and Sound Design by Brian Morales
HERE Arts Center 145 Sixth Avenue (entrance on Dominic St.) Tickets Available at Box Office or at Ovation Tickets, $45-$20. July 24-August 4, Tuesdays-Saturdays 7:00 pm, Sunday 2:00 pm, Running Time 75 Minutes