Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

Buried in the "A" section of the Wednesday edition of The Washington Post was a small news item which announced that the Iraqi government had voted to close the Iraqi High Criminal Tribunal that condemned, among other high ranking officials, Saddam Hussein.   This news coupled with the announcement on May 1st that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden has provided The Thespian with a great deal of reflection.   It has taken The Thespian a couple of weeks to digest the themes of the Pulitzer prize finalist play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and it is these recent events which have colored in her thoughts on this production.

Rajiv Joseph's play is not easy to follow.  While events depicted in the play following along roughly from point A to point B it is the digressions into philosophy and examinations of character that make Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo a very complex work.   It is noteworthy that it is not very clear at intermission exactly what the play is trying to convey, or even which character is the true protagonist.   Many audience members at the performance The Thespian attended were impressed with the performers, yet deeply confused by the plot of the play.   Yet, The Thespian begs patience.  Stick with the show and you will find a thought-provoking piece of theater that will leave you pondering life, violence, compassion, war and debating the consequences of the base nature of existence.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is set in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Hussein regime.  Baghdad is a crumbling war zone and the United States and its allies have taken to guarding cultural treasures, including the city's zoo.  Here we meet two soldiers, Tom (Glenn Davis) and the younger, brash Kev (Brad Fleischer) who have been tasked with guarding the zoo's tiger (Robin Williams).  Tom, the more confident of the two, brags of the "souvenirs" he has acquired including a golden gun looted from Usay Hussein's mansion.  Kev, more nervous and trying to prove himself to be accepted when he is a scared young man thrust unprepared for the horrors of war, is permitted to hold the gun.  The tiger is bitter about his years in the zoo, the foolhardy escape of the zoo's lions, which he derisively calls the Leos, and his base predatory nature commanded by his hunger.   When Tom taunts the tiger with some jerky, the tiger bites off his hand and, to stop the attack, Kev kills the tiger. 

Each man and beast is haunted by their actions, none so much as the fourth character who is arguably the moral center of the play, Musa (Tony nominee Arian Moayed).  Musa straddles the world of Baghdad with lives in both the Hussein regime, as a gardener for Usay Hussein, and, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion as a translator for the invading forces.   Yet, while Kev is haunted by his murder of the tiger and Tom by the loss of his hand and the mental breakdown of his fellow soldier, it is Musa who must struggle to find his humanity.  He is haunted by the sneering ghost of Uday Hussein and by an episode in the past which cost him dearly.

The play is staged in the decaying world of war-torn Baghdad.  Whether it is the cracked ornate stonework or the neglected topiaries of Musa's garden, Derek McLane's scenic design creates a perfect framework for Mr. Joseph's words.  The design is complimented by David Landers's lighting design and David Zinn's costumes.  The sound design by Acme Sound Partners and Cricket S. Myers immerses the audience from the moment they enter the theater and enhances the experience of the performance.

It is a tightly woven acting ensemble that Moises Kaufman has thoughtfully directed.  Necar Zadegan, Hrach Titizian and Sheila Vand each portray multiple roles, yet, while many are small, they each make an indelible impact on the proceedings.   As the trigger-happy, Kev, Brad Freischer creates an arc from scared young soldier to a haunted suicidal mental patient to confident intellectual trying to guide his fellow soldier on the right path.   As the handless Tom, Glenn Davis puts on a shield of bravado, yet lets the audience gradually see the chinks in his defensive armor as he becomes a broken man who delusionally believes that the salvation of his manhood lies in retrieving his golden spoils of war.

Arian Moayed's Musa is the soul of the play.  Haunted by his small role in the Hussein regime, Musa desperately tries to maintain his dignity while working as an Arabic translator for the U.S. forces.  Mr. Moayed takes the audience on a gripping emotional arc as he struggles not to give in to base human instinct.  It is The Thespian's opinion that Mr. Moayed's Tony nomination for this role is well deserved.

It is fortunate that the outer trappings of the tiger are symbolic.  Robin Williams appears to be a war-ravaged sage who has earned every well worn line on his grizzled face.  The tiger is provocative, espousing great philosophical statements on the nature of life, death, war and violence.   There is a great deal of black humor in the tiger's discourse, a necessary tool for the audience to embrace the darker elements of the playwright's philosophy.  It is to Mr. Williams' credit that he carefully threads the difficulties of his role.

To paraphrase, as the tiger ruefully asks, if God is good why did he make predators?  It is facing the inherent violent nature which potentially exists within us all that is the moral message that The Thespian took away from this play.  Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is not an easy play to sit through, nor is it without flaws.  However, for thoughtful theater-goers it is a satisfying theatrical experience.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is playing a strictly limited engagement at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through July 3rd, 2011.  It contains mature subject matter, language and depicts scenes of graphic violence.  The Thespian recommends it for adults and mature teenagers.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

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