Narrative opacity collides with emotional brutality in Philip Ridley’s 2011 play, now making its local premiere with the new-to-Chicago Quick + Dirty Productions after a run in Portland, Oregon.
A man (David Lind) and a woman (Rebecca Ridenour) trade tales of violence and domination—from rape-by-grenade to castration. Sometimes their stories involve fantastical sea creatures and monkeys. References to a birthday party, a young child (shades of George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and a tsunami all provide possible clues to the backstory that feeds the couple’s Grand Guignol flights of fancy.
It’s disturbing stuff, but Jen Rowe’s hyper-intimate and spare staging makes us feel like we’re trapped on the psychic desert island these two lovers share, where aching need and seething resentment sit cheek-to-jowl. Like the late Sarah Kane (to whom his work is often compared), Ridley’s worldview seems bleak but not cynical. He’s created characters who care enough to still fight for a foothold in each other’s lives rather than succumb to numbing nihilism.
The material requires actors unafraid of physical and emotional exposure and who have the ability to hold just enough of the histrionics in check to keep us guessing about where they’re going next. Matthew Kerrigan’s movement segments, particularly a poignant and lyrical wordless epilogue, provide compelling physical counterpoint to the verbal battles and revelations. Sometimes it’s tough to stomach, but Ridenour and Lind don’t flinch. As a result, Tender Napalm is both hypnotic and harrowing. v