BWW Review: Boston Premiere of BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Written by Rajiv Joseph, Directed by Shawn LaCount; Set Design, Dahlia Al-Habieli; Sound Design, Edward Young; Lighting Design, Jen Rock; Costume Design, Lara de Bruijn; Properties Design, Rebecca K. David; Special Effects, Lauren Duffy; Production Stage Manager, Molly Burman; Assistant Stage Managers, Julie Marie Langevin, Frances Swanson
CAST: Rick Park, Ray Ramirez, Michael Knowlton, Michael Dwan Singh, Mason Sand, Hallie Friedman, Salma Milia
Performances through November 17 at Company One, Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.companyone.org
The United States of America led a military invasion of coalition forces into Iraq in March, 2003, culminating in an occupation of the country and toppling of its leader Saddam Hussein. The new government tried and executed President Hussein, but faced the Iraqi insurgency and ongoing strife between warring factions over the course of the next five or six years. American troops remained until President Barack Obama established a gradual timetable for withdrawal, with the final exit occurring in December, 2011.
Before the War in Iraq began, the U.S. was already involved in the War in Afghanistan and the War on Terror. All of these wars have offered a cornucopia of dramatic material for playwrights and an opportunity to explore the political, religious, and human costs while telling important stories and fulfilling the theater's mission to educate as it entertains. However, the issue that arises for me is whether or not we are at a sufficient remove from the events of the last decade to be able to step back and take an analytical view that is balanced or unbiased. In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph's 2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalist play having its Boston premiere at Company One, the playwright addresses this challenge by asking a lot of questions without professing to know the answers. He leaves it to each member of the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Like many Americans, I must admit to suffering from a strain of war fatigue that causes me to approach this genre of play with drooping shoulders and a big sigh, expecting to be inundated with unpleasant images and guilt-inducing scenarios. Well, Bengal Tiger has its share of both, but Joseph takes a different approach to the subject matter. His play is a war comedy (note that Robin Williams starred in the title role in the 2011 Broadway production), albeit a very dark comedy, but there's plenty to laugh at, if you have the stomach for it. One graphic example is the entrance of Uday Hussein (played with nefarious glee by Mason Sand) toting the severed head of his brother in a plastic bag and carrying on a one-sided conversation with the deceased.
Oh, by the way, Uday is also deceased, but continues to haunt Baghdad as a ghost. He is actually one of many ghostly characters in the play, as death in Iraq does not seem to mean the end the way Americans think it does. In addition, the Tiger, a Marine, and an Iraqi girl hang around to raise more questions after they die. This is quite troubling for those who are haunted by them, another Marine and an Iraqi who works as an interpreter for the U.S. military. However, the playwright ascribes to the characters of the after-life some clarity of vision - at least enough to ask questions they would not have considered when they were alive - in order to try to make some sense of the craziness of war and God's role in the whole mess.
Rick Park has no trouble finding the humor and humanity, if you will, in the Tiger role. He manages to lull us into seeing him as a victim because he is caged at the Baghdad Zoo, far removed from his natural habitat, only to suddenly behave true to his nature in a shockingly fast act that spawns several major plot points. Park makes the Tiger sympathetic, especially when he starts to question his own nature and seek forgiveness for the atrocities he has committed, unlike the human characters who are unduly interested in the material spoils of war.
Michael Dwan Singh's portrayal of Musa, the interpreter, is far-reaching and moving. He conveys his character's difficult situation, where he is little more than a servant to his employers and likely to be left high and dry when the occupation ends. Singh beams with Musa's pride in his landscaping work and love for his younger sister Hadia (Hallie Friedman's childlike innocence is refreshing amidst the dark themes of the play), and trembles with fear and rage when he is pushed to his breaking point. As the two Marines, Ray Ramirez (Tom) and Michael Knowlton (Kev) capture the bravado and hair-trigger nerves of the young men poised for combat. Ramirez's Tom appears to be tougher and more mature, while Knowlton's Kev disintegrates under pressure. Salma Milia brings an air of long-suffering resignation as a leper who lives in the desert.
Company One Artistic Director Shawn LaCount directs this complex play and, with the design team, creates an atmosphere that reflects the tension, chaos, and violence of a war zone. He draws solid performances from the cast, but doesn't hit all of the comedy with enough gusto. Dahlia Al-Habieli's set design has a Middle Eastern flavor with two faux stone columns flanking the central cage for the Tiger. The sound design by Edward Young includes traffic and crowd noise and gun shots, and Jen Rock's lighting design casts many interesting shadows and augments the impact of Musa's topiary figures in the palace garden. Lara de Bruijn dresses the Marines in desert fatigues, hangs loose-fitting clothing of beige and orange on the barefoot Park, and highlights Hadia's innocence with a white peasant dress. Rebecca K. David handles properties design and special effects are by Lauren Duffy.
Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo is thematically rich, exploring existential issues for both man and tiger, questioning the role of God in man's wars, and blurring the line between life and death. Since Joseph wrote the play in 2003, the situation in that part of the world has changed and seems to continuously evolve, thus altering the context of the play. The Company One production has a feeling of timeliness and immediacy, especially in light of the recent events in Libya. Once again, art imitates life all too realistically.
Photo credit: Liza Voll Photography (Rick Park and the cast of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo)