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Tender Napalm – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir - photo credit Teresa Wood.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir – photo credit Teresa Wood.

Two characters known as “Man” and “Woman” are the sole performers in this complex and powerful drama by British playwright Philip Ridley.  It is both a love story of two young Londoners who have experienced an extraordinary loss, and a hypothetical time warp 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 grandiose gardens of a spectacular mansion where their courtship unfolds in a relatively straightforward fashion.  But as Director Matthew Gardiner foreshadows in his introduction to the play, “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 and a made-up fantasy language to convey all of these conflicting emotions in Tender Napalm.

Elan Zafir, who has a huge almost superhero physicality, plays Man to Laura Harris’s sylph-like Woman – – a deliberate choice that depicts the lovers as not only emotionally opposite but physically opposite as well.  But it’s not a competition of brawn over beauty, our heroine is just as intense and savvy an opponent as her lover.

Credit: Photo of Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir by Teresa Wood.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir – photo credit Teresa Wood.

The play is presented in snippets and flashbacks of their relationship.  In one bumbling effort to express his desires Man tells Woman, “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,” a crass sentiment later co-opted by Woman, who suggests a hand grenade to achieve the same effect.  Calling her ”my muse” and expressing his love he tells her, “I’d like to be a tree full of doves pushing my branches around you.” She responds by referring to him as “my snare” and blowing him off.  Push and pull.  Back and forth.

In their drive to establish their separate identities and assert their dominance over the other, Woman invents a desert island where she is Queen of the Monkeys.  She threatens Man telling him the monkeys will do her bidding to establish her power.  Not to be challenged, Man counters with the same desire to be in charge 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 as the unknown, and a man-eating sea serpent to represent the concept of death and rebirth.  Ridley portrays Man as the conqueror, an unrelenting warrior, protector of Woman and slayer of the serpent. While 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 rat-a-tat-tatting his way around the stage.

Credit: Photo of Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir by Teresa Wood.

Laura C. Harris and Elan Zafir – photo credit Teresa Wood.

Yet the play has deeply affecting moments of tenderness and surrender when the lovers step away from their egos and submit to one another.  Sounds of explosions, earthquake rumblings and the screech of a futuristic rewind help to reset the action as the lovers’ emotions swing wildly from love and lust to hate and envy.  But 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.  It is a must see.

Through May 11th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit

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