‘Tender Napalm’ at Signature Theatre

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You know those moments in life that seem to transport you to another state of being, and feel like an out-of-body experience? How about those moments when it feels like the world is moving in slow motion all around you? What if, in these moments, your partner/lover was right there with you? What if, when you were transported to a supernatural mental headspace, this other person came along, and the two of you had to exist, and express your love within the confines of this new psychological landscape? Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm at Signature Theatre tests the love of a couple in various places and times, some seeming all too real and others seeming wildly fanciful.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Laura C. Harris (Woman) and Elan Zafir (Man). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Tender Napalm involves a couple comprised of Man, played by Elan Zafir, and Woman, played by Laura C. Harris. The two begin and end the play in pools of light, across the rectangular raised platform upon which the play is performed, speaking an identical exchange, the only difference being which character is speaking which half of the conversation. Ridley plays with words like a mad scientist throughout this ninety-minute rollercoaster ride through this couple’s relationship, allowing Zafir and Harris to display a full spectrum of emotions in such a short period of time. The various settings and scenarios the characters face, whether meeting at a garden party, battling each other with teams of monkeys, or engaging in carnal foreplay, require the actors to approach each other from different vantage points with each new encounter. The give and take between Zafir and Harris in their verbal tête-à-tête and physical sparring is palpable, the trust between the two is wholly human, and the risks each takes with his/her tactics and objectives with each new scenario is thrilling to watch.

Director Matthew Gardiner has taken what appears to be a daunting and psychologically challenging play to wrap one’s head around and turned it into a thrilling non-linear jaunt through time and space. His understanding of each setting, both physically and psychologically, is crystal clear with the transitions into and out of each space. His understanding of movement shines in this piece, as well as his familiarity with the world of musical theatre, as Ridley’s language has innate rhythms in various places and is wonderfully descriptive in other places, much like the lyrics in the great musicals he has previously directed. The setting of this piece of theatre in the round is brilliant, and makes me want to see the show again to see what nuances I would pick up from a different vantage point. The staging is such that I didn’t feel any seat gave a superior view.

The strength of Gardiner’s vision and the unique talents of his design team elevate the production. The technical aspects of this play allow the audience to feel each new setting before Harris and Zafir begin to speak, from the rustic scenic design by Luciana Stecconi, to the phenomenal lighting design by Colin K. Bills, to the simultaneously breathtaking and haunting sound design by Eric Shimelonis.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Laura C. Harris (Woman) and Elan Zafir (Man). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Whether you are a theatergoer looking for an exciting night of art, a regular audience member of Signature’s musical selections looking to see what else they have to offer, or someone looking for an equally diverting and soul-stirring night of theatre, Tender Napalm is the show for you!

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Tender Napalm plays through May 11, 2014 at Signature’s ARK Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9971, or purchase them online.