Theater review: 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' at the Mark Taper Forum [Updated]
For those of you who missed Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” in its world premiere last spring at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, there’s another opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of the most provocatively talented American playwrights to emerge in a long while.
The return engagement of Moisés Kaufman’s acclaimed production of a work I consider the most original theatrical response to the Iraq war to date opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum. The play doesn’t seem quite as comfortable in the larger space. Some of the intensity has diffused, and the wider scrutiny that comes with a higher-profile stage doesn’t benefit the less experienced cast members. But the dramatic imagination on display is every bit as impressive as it was a year ago.
Unlike the more journalistic explorations of recent history, the documentary theater pieces inspired by CNN headlines, “Bengal Tiger” is as alert to geopolitical developments as it is to the power of the stage to alter our relationship to them. Inured as the public has grown to the ongoing bombardment of blood-soaked information, the last thing anyone needs in the theater is a recap of the horrors of the nightly news.
Joseph, whose play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, isn’t trying to dramatically sneak in what many of us are actively tuning out. Instead, he constructs a familiar yet strange cosmos and invites us to ponder the way in which war, in this world, has become part of the warped woodwork. If this is beginning to sound earnest or sanctimonious, let me assure you that the approach is as audaciously comic as anything in the theater right now.
The sweeping boldness of vision, bringing together cultures, species and even the living and the dead, is thrilling in its own right. Take the Bengal tiger (played by Kevin Tighe in a performance that now anchors the production), who narrates from war-torn Baghdad, where even the zoo is being strafed. A talking big cat, he becomes the work's moral philosopher, which isn't the kind of thing you see in plays that secretly would rather be TV dramas. But a Socratic feline is a perfect guide for a drama that wants to better understand how cold-blooded killers can also be innocent victims.
“Bengal Tiger” begins with two American soldiers, clearly out of their depths in occupied Baghdad, standing guard in front of the tiger’s cage. Tom (Glenn Davis), who’s been showing off the gold-plated gun he looted from a stash of treasures belonging to Saddam Hussein’s sons, tries to slip a Slim Jim to the starving creature and gets mauled for his stupidity. Kev (Brad Fleischer), reacting in the manner of an impressionable kid whose idea of combat stems more from movies than actual battle, shoots the tiger with the priceless pistol. [Update: An earlier version of this review misspelled the actor Glenn Davis' last name as David.]
Thus begins a journey into the meaning of senseless slaughter—a quandary that is the reverse of the existential one pursued in the past by Sophocles, Shakespeare and Beckett. The age-old mystery of “Why do I live?” henceforth becomes “Why am I now a ghost?”
This is a play in which death, cheap and ubiquitous, has absolutely no effect on an actor’s stage time. The most disturbing specter, the resident Mephistopheles of this earthly purgatory, is Uday Hussein (a sensationally creepy Hrach Titizian, dressed as though he’s heading out to a rave), who totes around the head of his equally fiendish brother and brags about the torture-filled good old days before the Americans ruined his fun.
Uday haunts Musa (Arian Moayed), an Iraqi translator for the U.S.military who used to work as a topiary artist at one of the palace gardens and now puzzles over the meaning of brainless American slang. One day before the fall of Baghdad, Musa's sister, Hadia (Sheila Vand), came to admire her brother’s animal shrubbery and was brutally raped and killed by Uday. This was apparently one of Uday's more satisfying atrocities, but the reason he appears to be hanging around is to demoralize Musa into taking revenge on the Americans.
If there's a protagonist in this field of characters, it is indeed Musa, who is wrestling with loyalty to his nation and his position with the U.S. military, with his hatred of the Hussein legacy of brutality and his disgust with the American carnage that has supplanted it, with his identity as a creative being and his recognition that without power art and beauty are utterly expendable. Joseph is stalking big thematic game, moving from the moral to the metaphysical, and he’s well served by Moayed’s sensitive characterization of an artist who increasingly feels his only choice is to join in the bloody mayhem.
Like all good playwrights, Joseph thinks out the meaning of his play in fearless theatrical metaphors. A leper woman (Necar Zadegan) whose colony has been bombed has been charged with guarding the gold Hussein toilet seat that Tom considers an annuity for his tour of hell. An Iraqi prostitute (played by Vand, who morphs between this role and that of Hadia) tries to understand the request of a soldier whose sexual needs have changed since he got a prosthetic hand. A tiger contemplates vegetarianism as a way out the predatory cycle he's locked into.
Derek McLane’s Middle Eastern sets are as spare as they are atmospherically rich. The scenic design may have worked better on a more compact stage, but the magical sense that anything can occur has been vitally left intact. David Lander’s pockets of lighting certainly enhance this quality, as do David Zinn’s simple yet transformative costumes, Kathryn Bostic’s suggestive music and Cricket S. Myers’ tense sound. But credit Kaufman for realizing such an integrated theatrical vision.
“Bengal Tiger” introduces an intrepid new voice to the American theater, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who can’t wait to see what he writes next.
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“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends May 30. $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Top photo: Glenn Davis, left, Brad Fleischer, Kevin Tighe. Bottom: Hrach Titizian and Arian Moyad. Credit: Bret Hartman / For The Times