Theatre by the River/Theatre Incarnate
● 245 McDermot Ave.
● Til Saturday Oct. 21
★★★★ out of five
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This article was published 13/10/2017 (1306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Love is a battlefield, or so the song goes. In the local production of British playwright Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, that battlefield is an island, inhabited by just two people who find the sand shifting treacherously under their feet as their relationship is endlessly reshaped and redefined.
Winnipeg actors Daina Leitold and Karl Thordarson play the unnamed protagonists, Woman and Man. On a rectangular transverse stage (with audience members on either side facing each other), they savage each other, matching each other blow for blow. Even their pillow talk involves weapons.
True to its title, Tender Napalm, a co-production of Theatre by the River and Theatre Incarnate, is both explosive and moving, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.
This challenging dramatic two-hander blurs the line between sex and cruelty (or, rather, explores the far, far edges of that blur).
It’s violent, sometimes cartoonishly so, but always with an undercurrent of danger. It’s profane, sometimes poetically so, but more often with shocking bluntness.
Ridley might be best known for penning the screenplay for British true-crime film The Krays and for the cult horror movie The Reflecting Skin, which he wrote and directed.
He also writes children’s books, which, while tonally at odds with this battle of the sexes, is reflected in the characters’ flights of fancy and building of imaginary worlds.
As the couple spars, grandiose fantasies with the proportion of Greek myths are countered with scabrous realism.
Man breathlessly re-enacts his slaying of a giant sea serpent, hacking and slashing at the creature from inside its shipwreck-filled belly while its huge heartbeat fills his ears; Woman counters with a grim domestic tale of a different kind of serpent slaying, in which she calmly takes a pair of shears to a part of his anatomy that she describes as "a button mushroom in a Brillo pad."
An overhead projector turns the floor beneath them into a jungle or a sandy beach, while creating stark shadows that seem almost like secondary characters.
It’s a surreal, exhausting journey, both for the audience and the actors, who are run ragged physically and emotionally for 90 minutes (the play runs just over two hours, including the prologue and an intermission).
Leitold and Thordarson hold nothing back.
Under the direction of Brenda McLean, they tumble, leap and throw themselves across the stage and at each other. The actors — whom one hopes aren’t having to draw too much on their own marriage for motivation — attack, draw back and relax into vicious flirtation or even starry-eyed attraction.
There are portions of Tender Napalm where it’s all just too much — there’s maybe one intense monologue too many — and it’s distracting to hear the script’s Britishisms in a play with no distinct geographical setting, but it’s never not compelling.
The little islands couples build for themselves are not unassailable sanctuaries — they can be beset with terrors on all sides, and the ways we deal with those terrors are deeply personal and not always compatible with our partner’s.
A relationship that starts out as "you and me against the world" can turn into "you against me" without you even realizing it and there’s a razor-sharp line that divides a shudder of ecstasy from a sob.
The prologue, which takes place in a circular space outside the theatre, features Mel Marginet, Derek Leenhout and Ali Robson in a dramatic presentation of five of Ridley’s poems (which tie into the play to follow), incorporating dance and song. At times it feels a bit like a parody of avant-garde theatre — actors running or crawling while voicing overlapping lines — but there are lovely bits, including Leenhout’s gorgeous voice and Robson’s expressive hands twitching like tiny fireworks that reflect Ridley’s pyrotechnic verse.
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Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.