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Acting overshadows esoteric script at Cleveland Public Theatre

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

Philip Ridley, the author of TENDER NAPALM, now being staged at Cleveland Public Theatre, was trained as an artist.  His paintings, like his plays, are characterized by using a palate of colors, splashed all over.  There is also a bizarre quality to his writing which is fairly typical of 1990s British “In-Yer-Face” theatre.  Theatre that is filled with fantasy, dark surrealism, which leaves the audience asking, “What the hell is going on?”

TENDER NAPALM, finds a married couple in a room in which they act out a series of fantasies.  Or are they realities?  The audience is entwined in a rambling plot that invites such questions as: “Who are these people?” “Where is this set?” “What caused this invasion of fear, terror, desire and darkness?” “What does the title mean?” Why are they terrorizing each other about the outside world? And, “Do these infantile games have any meaning?”

The “In-Yer-Face” movement attracted young audiences and repulsed traditional critics.  Its subjects included storytelling that resembled the rambling imagination of children.  The movement’s writers examined sexuality, family guilt, racial hatred, and destruction of the traditional structures of society without using traditional organized plot structures.

TENDER NAPLAM, which is only ninety-minutes in length, makes for a long sit.  Within that intermissionless time, sexual decapitation, unicorn fantasies, palaces, monkeys, flying saucers, Neptune the God of the Seas, aliens, a party in a mansion, bombs, parallel universes, space ships, destruction of sexual organs, a child, and islands are all discussed and acted out in a single kitchen-type space.  Actors cavort, jump on and off various set pieces, act out battle scenes, and taunt each other.

While the script, itself, does not satisfy the theatrical requirement for gaining knowledge or entertaining, it acts as a wonderful device for theatricality.  The long speeches and bizarre nature of the goings on are perfect devices for acting exercises.  Director Denise Astorino and performers Melissa Crum and Matt O’Shea use the opportunity well.

Astorino, CPT’s 2013-2014 Joan Yellen Horvitz Director Fellow, pulls out all the emotional stops, guiding with an eye for ferocity of feelings.  She is blessed with a cast that gets beyond the play’s weaknesses and creates vivid visual and emotional pictures.

Both Crum and O’Shea are superb in milking the over-wrought vignettes.  They scream, rant, confront each other, throw their bodies around like rag dolls, leap onto tables and counters, physically exhausting themselves and the audience.   These are premiere performances.

Capsule judgement: TENDER NAPALM is an “In-Yer-Face” flow of pseudo-intellectual double talk and esoteric mumbo jumbo, splattered like colors into a mélange of existential gibberish.  Its real value, however, is that it allows two superb actors (Melissa Crum and Matt O’Shea) to display their talents.  That’s the only reason to go see this production, and that may be reason enough.

TENDER NAPALM runs through May 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to