The East London exes of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm could give the long-married spouses of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a lesson in how to use language as both weapon and aphrodisiac, or so Los Angeles audiences can now discover in the sensational West Coast Premiere of Ridley’s surreal romantic tragedy at the downtown warehouse-turned-performance space Six-01 Studio.

3379.1524 Provocative indeed are the first words we hear from the character known only as Man. “Your mouth,” he tells Woman, “it’s such a wet thing. I could squeeze a bullet between those lips. Your mouth would relax. You would accept this bullet in your palette.”

Not to be outdone, his partner in this psychosexual pas de deux responds with an equal blend of violent imagery and verbal foreplay: “I could get a spoon and prise it into your eye sockets,” she shoots back.

And the cat and mouse games have only just begun as the duo play games of verbal one-upmanship that blend poetry, sadism, and yes, even a bit of tenderness as the play’s title might suggest.

A far cry this all might seem to be from the children’s books playwright Ridley has also written, yet the imagery conjured up by our hero and heroine could just as easily be elements of young adult fiction, the couple’s fantasy battles involving monstrous sea serpents, mythical unicorns, and wild monkeys, along with spaceships, pirates’ swords, and a pair of garden shears to do Lorena Bobitt one better. (Well, all right, that last one would probably not come from one of Ridley’s children’s tales.)

Other images are far more real, those of bullets and hand grenades inserted, as they say, “where the sun don’t shine,” though the real damage caused by Man and Woman may come from the bullets and hand grenades couched in the words they sling back and forth.

3379.1525 Now if all this sound rather a bit artsy-fartsy (and the type of play this reviewer usually avoids like the plague), Tender Napalm might well have been just that were it not for several significant factors.

First of all, Ridley’s writing conjures up such vivid images that it’s hard not to find oneself enthralled, the playwright savvily punctuating Tender Napalm with just enough humor to provide a welcome bit of mood-lightening every now and then. Secondly, there is method to Ridley’s madness, the play’s penultimate scene flashing us back to the couple’s first meeting and providing several possible explanations for what has come before. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, with actors as out-and-out brilliant as Hamilton and Paige and direction as thoroughly inspired as Edwards’, I dare anyone’s interest to wane, so completely do the creative trio hold the audience in the palms of their hands.

Edwards’ directorial contributions cannot be underestimated. To begin with, playwright Ripley provides him with little or no stage directions.

Take for example the play’s opening scene.

The New York production of Tender Napalm started off with Man and Woman warming up for a fight, like boxers preparing for a match or Olympic athletes getting ready to compete. Not so in L.A., where Hamilton simply enters, pulls off the bed sheet which has been covering a prone Paige, and launches into Man’s “bullet” monolog. Edwards’ every own opening salvo, and an effective one at that.

And for those who might think that this sheet will soon be discarded, think again, as in Edwards’ interpretation of Ripley’s words, it becomes almost a third character.

3379.1526 Still, there would be no West Coast Premiere of Tender Napalm worth seeing without actors capable of bringing Ripley’s words to life and keeping an audience in their spell, and Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige are just those actors.

Hamilton’s Scenies (a pair of individuals for The Grönholm Method and Becky Shaw and a third as a member of the Peace In Our Time ensemble) altered this reviewer to one of L.A.’s most dynamic and gifted young actors, and in Tender Napalm he outdoes himself, not only getting quite possibly the toughest onstage physical workout of his career but digging deep down into Man’s darkest places in a performance we can scarcely take our eyes off of.

Paige’s performance as Estella in the Scenie-winning ensemble of Great Expectations alerted me to an actress of beauty and power, a first impression more than borne out by her absolutely stunning performance in Tender Napalm. In addition to a workout every bit as strenuous as Hamilton’s, Paige paints Woman in virtually every color of the emotional rainbow, her expressive eyes holding us in their thrall.

As was true in Casey Kringlen’s memorable staging of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol this past December, the 7000 square foot Six01 Studio once again proves one of L.A.’s most fascinating venues.

For Tender Napalm, a single row of folding chairs surround the four sides of the “center ring” in which Hamilton and Paige do battle atop a large Persian rug, the only other set pieces being a pair of boxes at opposite corners. Lighting designer Michael Hyland bathes the set in an appropriately stark light, except for the party lights which shine down in the aforementioned flashback. Nenad Pervan is movement director in a play in which the two actors’ movements are an integral part of their performances. Justin Preston is stage manager.

Tender Napalm is produced by Joe Morra, Lena Georgas, Edwards, Hamilton, and Paige, a labor of love that has paid off in a production which might not normally be this reviewer’s cup of tea, but in whose talented, committed hands, Ridley’s two-actor one-act becomes a theatrical adventure I am very glad I took.

Tender Napalm was awarded 2012-2013 StageSceneLA Scenies for Memorable Production, Drama; Best Direction Of A Drama (Edward Edwards); and Best Lead Performances In A Duo Ensemble (Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige).

Return engagement now playing at:
Six01 Studio, 601 S. Anderson Street, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 11, 2013
Photos: Andrew Amani

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