It's the time of the living dead in war-torn Iraq circa 2003 at the Roundhouse Theatre, where Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalist and recent Broadway hit, stalks the boards
The carnage had yet to register with us at this early
stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But for many, the first horrific blips of the war were conveyed by the appalling
plunder of Baghdad - near the birthplace of civilization; for others, it was the killing of a Bengal tiger and accounts of
the theft and destruction of rare animals.
which stopped here last season, and depicted the moral ambiguities of this protracted foreign war faced by our combat
soldiers, Bengal Tiger, written by Rajiv Joseph, stakes out the hypocrisy, looting - physical and spiritual - and
slaughter as it is perceived by the Iraqis. The zoo serves as an apt metaphor for the predicament the citizens find
themselves in: they're being squeezed into captivity by both sides - the invaders and their own government.
Everybody's in the wrong place at the wrong time, literally, though there don't
seem to be any viable alternatives. Two young soldiers played by Danny Gavigan (a determined and tone deaf Tom) and
Felipe Cabezas (as the needy and intelligence-challenged Kev) - both actors expanding the range of their emotional repertoire
- are more interested in looting and establishing their masculinity. They are the stereotypical "Ugly Americans."
They both work with an interpreter named Musa (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) who we later find out was a gardener for Uday Hussein
(Pomme Koch). Musa is a man with a lot on his mind and Mr. Ebrahimzadeh conveys this very conflicted individual as a
high tension wire. His sister Hadia, performed by Salma Shaw with astonishment (she also plays a bored local teenager/prostitute),
reflects innocence as she steps back into the twisted Garden serving as Uday's lair. Mr. Koch's take on
his character is something to behold: if you ever want to see a psychotic sadist in action, this is your chance to experience
one spellbinding portrayal of evil.
By now you'll
know the tiger is performed with minimal adornment, on two legs. But you'll start to wonder whether a clear demarcation
between the animal and human communities, not to mention the here and hereafter, should have been accentuated in some way.
The catastrophes endured on the stage by the characters promptly send them to the other world with nary a hitch. And ghosts
queue up (or linger) around their actual or perceived perpetrators like some great daisy chain of being. One who
is already there (Uday) acts like he's still very much alive. It's all provocative, but a bit disjointed.
Playing the Tiger (cast against stripe?) is the engaging Eric Hissom. When
the actor is on stage, the storyline comes into sharper focus and he lightens up the mood with his droll wit and choice use
of profanity. Is God playing games with us, giving us qualities that we can't act against and imbuing us with guilt
thereafter? Philosophic and very funny, Mr. Hissom carries the show over some heavy passages.
As if to highlight the lack of communication going on, there are several scenes where the translator (or terp) acts
as a mediator between the American and Iraqi people as both fail to get their points across, in their native tongues.
The cultural differences are further highlighted in numbing clarity in one-on-ones between Musa and his employers, but also
with his former ruler. And between the living and the dead (where everyone reaches a new level of wisdom), confusion reigns.
Everybody's talking and no one's listening.
Skidmore's snappy production has plenty of visual appeal. Gorgeous design and fluid movement give the production
an ethereal quality. The dialogue and storyline seemed contrived at times, though, which the accelerated pacing and
vocal intensity can only partly obscure. As if to emphasize the ordinariness of evil, the playwright superimposes realistic
dialogue on a story that embodies both the surreal and magical realism. Some of the episodes feel like scene study,
where one actor wants something (improbable, trivial, or trite) the other is unwilling to give; and some of the stage business
borders on the routine.
When we move to the realm of the supernatural,
things pick up, especially in design. Tony Cisek's imposing set is dark and grounded, its Middle Eastern faςade
laced with bomb craters; but also delightfully whimsical, with as fine an assemblage of topiary you'll see outside of
Maryland's Ladew Gardens. Ornate grillwork serves to accent the zoo and slides open to reveal palace grounds and desert ruins.
Composer/sound designer Eric Shimelonis mixes things up exotically
while Andrew Cissna's outstanding lighting illuminates this strange landscape by degrees. Together with costume
designer Frank Labovitz and fight choreographer Casey Kaleba, they give the play an in-the-moment and in-your-face quality.
Indeed, so precise are the scenes thought out, that designers have showcased their efforts, including a storyboarded lighting
progression, on display in the theater's adjacent lounge.
Bengal Tiger walks a fine line between displaying the chaos, confusion,
exploitation and explosive violence of war and its overrepresentation. Too much of the former and a play becomes
didactic, it loses entertainment; if too much of the latter, it loses value. The extensive Arabic dialogue, translated
in the script, is lost in performance and all the ranting, often coming from multiple parties, wears the meaning thin.
The dream sequences layered on otherworldly reflections mask the message.
There are a number of levels of disbelief you'll have to suspend. To
the extent you are willing to do so this should prove to be a compelling play. If the leap is problematic, you'll
be likely to find it murky, though it will leave you with some entertaining and graphic moments to ponder.
You'll also be left with some symbols to consider. There are the lost
hands - an Iraqi leper (Nadia Mahdi) offers the starkest example - and the redeployed ones, prosthetic, artistic, and sexually
adjunctive. And there is a circulating golden hand gun, along with topiary hand-sculpted to perfection. Is there
a literal interpretation or does its significance lie elsewhere? Is the mind of the play in the gardener, an artist,
or under the camouflage of an existential tiger?
to make of all this? Is it a muddled or a unique vision which we'll understand as Mr. Joseph's star continues
to rise? You'll ask these questions and more if you get out to the play - and you should, if only to see what
all of the hulabaloo is about - in the days and perhaps years that follow. Time will tell.
The image of evil that hangs like a curse over the ravaged country will stay with
you. The Garden's been despoiled and the Gardener has gone away.
Sound check: Quite loud at times, with gunshots, screaming, and battle sequences.
Program notes: Very good to excellent, with comments, an interview with the playwright,
and a glossary in program; and displays in lobby and lounge.
meter: Recommended, 3 hands (out of 5). Attractive design, solid acting, and compelling theatrical concept outweigh
the occasionally prosaic and incomprehensible (and loud) dialogue and situations.
Moment of the play: Uday's first appearance to Musa.
of the play: 1) Pomme Koch as Uday, 2) Eric Hissom as Tiger, 3) Andrew Cissna, lighting designer & Tony Cisek, scenic
Runtime: 2:20/w intermission.
© John F. Glass, September 20, 2012 - All rights reserved.