Delve into the deeper (sexual) thoughts with Tender Napalm at Cleveland Public Theatre

Fantasy Land 

Delve into the deeper (sexual) thoughts with Tender Napalm at Cleveland Public Theatre

If you like rough sex but without, um, the sex part, then you're sure to be entranced by this one-act exploration by Philip Ridley into the psychosexual byways of a relationship.

However, if you don't come in with that attitude, it may be hard for you to catch up with this dense, florid, fantasy-drenched and relentlessly in-your-face piece.

Man (Matt O'Shea) and Woman (Melissa Crum) face off, first across a checkerboard and then in their wildly populated fantasies as they punish and adore each other in their normal-seeming living space dominated by a kitchen.

In their world, hand grenades are sex toys, serpents are battled hand-to-hand and armies of monkeys are summoned to gain an advantage, with no quarter being given. Ridley certainly has a way with words, and he turns some of these flights of imagination into telling moments.

When Man imagines himself swallowed by a huge serpent, he reaches up to claw his way out saying, "It was like digging a hole in a sky made of meat."

But most of the interchanges between the Man and the Woman are directed at each other, with vitriol and raging passion that often blossoms into violent imagery—and eventually violence.

At times, it feels like a brutalized version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as each person is playing games with the other, but with seemingly dread intent. And that's where the major script problem arises.

Since we know so little about these two warriors (until the last moments of the show), we observe them taking major gambles with their relationship without putting any chips on the table. They have nothing at stake, so their defiantly childish taunts, no matter how X-rated, come off as juvenile "Did not!" Did too!" exchanges.

Each one riffs on the other's stories, changing facts and spinning the outcomes in different directions. As in: "One of my tentacles grabs your leg!" "I cut it off with my sword!" "Another tentacle grabs your arm!" "What arm?" "The one holding the sword." "Other hand takes the sword." And on and on.

As in the movie The Usual Suspects, many of the details of these fantasies appear in a later scene, in a much more benign context. This is meant to show us how the monkeys and monsters were eventually repurposed as the armor and weaponry of a contentious romantic pairing.  

And there certainly is truth in that thought, as people in love will often use anything at their disposal to score points and get a rise (literally and figuratively) out of the other person. But by isolating the action to just the arguments alone, without any additional information, it's like watching two strangers fight in a grocery store: Eventually, you just want to move on to the next aisle.

The production challenge is to maintain the intensity of the interchanges without becoming repetitive, and this production is not entirely successful on that score. Even though O'Shea and Crum give it their all, throwing themselves into their gladiatorial combat with admirable gusto, the thrust and parry between the two begins to feel exhausting, and not always in a good way.

Director Denise Astorino attempts to vary the pace and manages the physical action with skill. Taken individually, the pointed and often vicious skirmishes between the two have the gasp-inducing, white-knuckle tension of genuine confrontation.

But the realistic setting of a normal kitchen doesn't help the audience find an entry point to this surreal battle of the sexes. This play, like its title, exists on a different plane of experience and a more symbolic setting might signal this fact and thereby make the play more accessible.

Let's face it, this ain't checkers they're playing.

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