Tender Napalm, directed by David Norwood, is a postmodern love/hate story that examines the lines between fantasy and reality. When the play opens, a man (Amara James Aja) and a woman (Ayana Major Bey), face off and speak to each other in poetic language, filled with violent imagery and sexual innuendos. The abstract and poetic language, coupled with the nonlinear narrative, gives the play a surreal feel.
Everything is left to the imagination, which is built through Man and Woman’s exchanges. The basic costumes (black tank tops and bike shorts), bare stage (both by Norwood), and minimal lighting (Stacey Derosier), are intentionally absent of signifiers that provide any ideas about where they are or who they are. It seems to take place on a deserted island, but ideas constantly shift and there are references to whales, unicorns, a party, absentee fathers, UFOS, extraterrestrial beings, monkeys, mangoes, Neptune, and other Greek gods. Are they survivors of a tsunami? An apocalypse? Are they really stranded? Are they in an insane asylum? Or, are they emotionally castaway from their own disappointing life?
Sometimes the script returns to an idea—the tsunami is mentioned several times, as is a party. Moments that offer a small foothold in the dizzying story come when Man and Woman look at something and see two different things. These moments provide a little insight on how they view the world.
Woman: Have you seen the view? Tell me, have you ever seen such a glorious day
And later in the play, Man asks: You seen the view?
Woman: Er...not recently, no.
Man: That tsunami did a lot of damage.
Woman: ...I suspected it would.
Man: The beach—it’s just a worthless tip of washed up stuff now. Look at it all!
Tender Napalm could be called an anti-romance. It strips away any romantic interpretation of the relationship between men and women, since the two rarely agree on anything, even what the view looks like. Their exchange takes the form of intense competition, and each fights for domination. Of what is uncertain. Perhaps they are fighting for control over the island. Of the memories they share. Or, of each other. For all its abstraction, there is a realism in the way they fight for power. After all, isn’t the question of power the compass that shapes all relationships, from the personal to the political?
The British playwright, Philip Ridley, is known for “in-yer-face theatre,” and this work fits neatly into that 1990s coinage by the British theater critic Aleks Sierz, who used it to define a style that is often vulgar, confrontational and non-linear. Tender Napalm is certainly all of those things. In this respect, the play also has a postmodernist feel to it, both in writing and structure. In postmodernism, artists borrow from the past, and Ridley’s influences—Pinter, Churchill, Lorca, O’Neill—are all certainly drawn upon. But how are those influences combined to create a singular voice?
The most unified moment in the play comes toward the end, when Man and Woman recount their experience at a lavish party. It turns out they are united at once, recalling the time they met at the party: it is the first time they are on the same page. It is the most linear moment, but that’s not what makes it the most rewarding. Rather, the details are so lush and dignified that there is a palpable sadness that they still don’t seem to connect even in these ideal circumstances. Tender Napalm may be an anti-romantic play, but these moments convey a depth of loss within oneself in the face of everyday life. Sometimes, two people, for all they seem to have in common, just don’t connect. In our highly romantic world view, that is the ultimate tragedy. But, then again, perhaps it’s the ultimate reality. Postmodern theater is meant to raise questions, and it certainly does.
Tender Napalm runs through Aug. 4 at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave.; entrance on Dominick Street, one block south of Spring Street). Performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 2 p.m. on Sunday. For ticket and information, visit here.org or call (212) 352-3101.