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Playwright Rajiv Joseph takes on Iraq, existentialism and one big cat

May 16, 2009 | 11:00 am

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Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" is one of the most eagerly awaited new dramas of the season. After all, it's not every play that wins two awards before it even opens.

No pressure, right?

Loosely based on a 2003 news report, "Tiger" focuses on the repercussions of a random act of violence. An American soldier shoots and kills a large feline at the Baghdad Zoo after the animal maims a fellow solider who was trying to feed it.

Joseph used the article as the foundation to construct a philosophical and even existential investigation into the Iraq War. The play also follows the story of an Iraqi translator caught between sides as well as the ghost of the slain tiger.

He first presented an early version of the play at the Lark Theatre Company in New York. It has subsequently been workshopped at SUNY Purchase, the Sundance Institute and a few other theater organizations.

The playwright's agent decided to send the manuscript to Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. It eventually ended up in the hands of CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie, who liked it enough to include it as the season closer for the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It opens on Sunday.

In 2008, "Tiger" won an NEA grant as part of its New Play Development Program. And Joseph recently received a Kesselring Fellowship for emerging playwrights that has given him even more time and money to work on the play.

All of which has put a great deal of pressure on the 34-year-old dramatist to live up to all of the hype and expectations.

So how is he holding up? Read about it in today's Calendar section.

-- David Ng

Photo: Rajiv Joseph. Credit: Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times

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