Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo starts out, just as the title says, with a pacing tiger (Robin Williams) at the zoo, in an Iraq newly invaded by American forces, in 2003. This is a tiger who can talk to us, but not make himself clear to the soldiers standing vigil outside his cage. The Tiger is pissed and jealous and ironic, as so many animals have escaped to freedom, but futile freedom, only to be mowed down by artillery. If he gets his chance to escape, he’ll use it more wisely. But when one of the soldiers (Glenn Davis) offers the animal a morsel of food, the Tiger bites his hand off, only to be shot and killed by the soldier’s cohort (Brad Fleischer). “I get so stupid when I get hungry,” gripes the Tiger. But his death isn’t the end of him—for now he gets to prowl the play and offer comment on the state of the world at war, and the disposition of a God who would let the atrocities fester so.
Nor is the Tiger the only ghost. In this play, those who lose, or have lost, companions and loved ones, will almost certainly be haunted by them. But then there is poor Musa (Arian Moayed), formerly a gardener in the Hessein compound, where his sister (Shiela Vand) was raped and killed by one of Hussein’s son Uday (Hrach Titizian). Oh, Uday is dead too, but his legacy of violence lives on, as his ghost continues to badger Musa to direct his rage at the Americans who are (of course) the cause of all that has gone wrong.
For all its violence Rajiv Joseph’s play is almost delicately impressionistic and almost ethereally metaphysical. What kept it from being fully effective for me, though, was a feeling that its metaphysics weren’t fully realized. Perhaps this is just the perspective of a fellow who’s had a lifetime of exposure to dramatized science fiction, as both fan and practitioner, and a decade spent taking care of my own animals whose thought processes can’t be paralleled to human ideation, but I couldn’t fully buy into the portrait of the Tiger (despite the pitch-perfection of Mr. William’s angrily contained and bleakly humorous delivery). It kept stopping me short that his foul-mouthed vocabulary was one of very common human profanity; that his bewilderment at God’s behavior was expressed as one who has a western monotheistic orientation. Should not a Tiger have its own point of view that isn’t so transparently an anthropomorphized projection? Its own vocabulary unique to its non-human way of thinking, as opposed to the short-term joke of easy, coarse colloquialism? I’m not saying exotic or distancing or stilted or pretentious…just other. Via the conception of a mythos. I think the notion that no one is immune to the quiet, insidious insistence of life lived among violence would have been more powerful still if expressed by a creature to whom violence and God have a different iconography. As different as that which separates the play’s Iraquis from its Westerners.
Still, though—the play is effective and an indelible impression is absolutely what it leaves, under the stark direction of Mosés Kaufman. A play like this doesn’t have to be anywhere near perfect to be mandatory or necessary. Its boldness is quite sufficient…
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