Review: ‘Tender Napalm’ presented by Anton’s Well (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Two characters, Man and Woman, speak and dance together for an hour and forty five minutes. They transform into animals. They tell dream like stories that are, variously, funny, threatening, seductive, unbelievable, and, ultimately, strangely revealing of deep human truths. It is fascinating to hear and see.

Playwright Philip Ridley (who is also a successful novelist, filmmaker and painter) has fashioned a script in which two characters delve deeply into their inner psyches to dredge up healing images for one another. They seem to be both desperately in love, and desperately lost. Working together, they use poetry, image, and dance to challenge one another. The images they create with their words and their movements are the stuff of many archetypal fantasies, from alien abduction to the Lost Continent of Atlantis, to human-like monkeys, to sea serpents, to ancient gods and more. It all has the power of dreams.

Ridley’s poetic script has a motivating story which is only gradually revealed. By the end of the play we do understand why these two are so desperate to explore so deeply into their souls and how it is, through a controlled, artistic madness, that they are trying to save one another from an all too real despair.

On a bare stage, with the minimal assistance of an effective lighting design by Nate Bogner and an excellent original score by Greg Zema, performers Willem Long and Anastasia Barron dig deep into a relationship which is, indeed, as explosively dangerous as napalm, and as tender as a nursing mother. The dance is intense, at times acrobatic, the words and movements almost too full of emotion.

It is astonishing that work that is simultaneously this complex and this opaque can be so riveting, but for the nearly two hour performance I attended there was no fidgeting among the audience members who sat surrounding the actors on three sides with no platform to separate them from the action. We were with these two in a dive into the depths of our shared unconscious, calling up healing spirits in what seemed to be a genuine crisis.

Attendees who allow the images and sounds to wash over them, without worrying too much about making sense of everything, should have a memorable time with “Tender Napalm.” Those familiar with the analytical psychology of Carl Jung, and, particularly, the imagistic psychology of Jung’s disciple, James Hillman, will be even more profoundly rewarded.

“Tender Napalm” is the rare play that works on many levels, not just straight-forward story telling. It contains sophisticated insights into psychology, philosophy, myth, and emotion rarely encountered.

Director Robert Estes has clearly studied this script with great care. In a program note, he writes that “Tender Napalm” might be considered a play that is “in your psyche.” Indeed it is. This is a play that is not set in any usual place, but rather in the interior landscapes visited in dreams, or under the influence of psychedelic drugs, or shamanic ceremony. It is strange, but nothing in it is unfamiliar.

Choreographer Bridgette Loriaux brilliantly matches the music and the poetry with persuasive movement throughout. The entire performance is an extended pas de deux with movements that are at times both lyrical and acrobatic, always dynamic and full of unexpected rhythms and magical transformations.

On opening night, the excellent performers seemed to be a bit too rigidly focused on getting all their moves and lines right, and did not entirely relax into the improvisational simplicity that would carry this work beyond the boundaries of “excellent” and into the rarefied territory of “great art.” But they are very close indeed, and this production will surely become richer and deeper with each performance.

“Tender Napalm” is a journey into another world, that lies just beneath the surface of day to day life. It is both familiar and strange, and if you attend with deep attention, you may find that it changes you as surely as would a voyage to a far away primeval island.

“Tender Napalm” continues at Temescal Arts Center through August 5th. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Tender Napalm” by Phlip Ridley, a Bay Area Premiere produced by Anton’s Well Theater Company at the Temescal Arts Center. Direcgor: Robert Estes. Choreographer: Bridgette Loriaux. Assistant Director: Wm. Diedrick Razo. Original Music: Greg Zema. Lighting Design: Nate Bogner. Sound Design: Ella Cooley. Costume Design: Natalie Barshow.

Cast:

Man: Willem Long. Woman: Anastasia Barron.

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