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A CurtainUp Review
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
By Elyse Sommer
While Joseph's play began with an actual incident reported by the head of the Baghdad Zoo in 2003 — the shooting or a rare Bengal Tiger during a drunken party between US soldiers and a group of Iraqi police officers — don't expect a TV style documentary. What makes this more than an Iraq war play, or for that matter, any war play, is the way Joseph has created a theatrical landscape that is totally different from the harrowing war reports to which the nightly news has accustomed us. It's a landscape filled with ghosts who haunt and are haunted: The marine who is mauled as a result of his insensitivity to the nature of a tiger he's guarding. . . his buddy who comes to the rescue but is haunted by the tiger he shoots. . .the tiger who doesn't just die but metamorphoses into a ghostly narrator-philosopher.
Bengal Tiger. . . doesn't trot out any really new themes but the playwright's attempt to picture the ugliness of war and its random cruelties in a new way succeeds admirably. Focusing on characters more than a tightly structured plot, Mr. Joseph tackles many ideas by tapping deep into the psyches of his characters, whether real or ghosts. Casting the Tiger as a war victim and the chief commentator and seeker of understanding and wisdom in the hellish war zone in which God seems to have gone AWOL brilliantly underscores how the stress of war exacerbates the instincts that are programmed into the DNA of human beings and big cats alike.
Despite the rave reviews that moved Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo from its debut at the Center Group's smaller Kirk Douglas Theater to the large Mark Taper Forum, not to mention its being a Publitzer Prize finalist, the outstanding but unknown cast needed a star Tiger to make a transfer to Broadway possible. You couldn't want for a better liked star with greater name recognition than Robin Williams. And the Tiger is an excellent role for Williams' Broadway debut. (His other live New York stage appearance was at Lincoln Center in 1998 in another existential and darkly comic play, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot).
With his bushy gray beard (especially grown for this gig) Williams fits the role physically and he makes his wry observations without any of the comic shtick associated with him as a personality. Not that he doesn't have plenty of comic lines but the laughs come from Williams the atheistic, wandering Tiger, not Williams the standup comedian. And while he gets star billing and the Tiger is the metaphorical heart of this unusual play, this is an ensemble piece. Except for his positioning during the curtain call, Williams plays down any attempts to make himself anything but a member of that ensemble, all of whom are reprising the roles they created in Los Angeles.
Of the two Marines who we first meet guarding the Tiger cage, Glenn Davis nails the tough, opportunistic Tom who during a raid that sent Saddam Hussein's two evil sons to the Great Beyond appropriated a gold plated gun and gold toilet seat that he plans to turn into his private pension once he gets back to the States. Brad Fleisher is compelling as the less experienced and not too swift Kev who grabs Tom's gold gun when his teasing triggers the Tiger's Tigerishness. Kev saves Tom's life but not his hand. While Kev is haunted by the Tiger and views Tom as a friend, all Tom cares about are those golden treasures.
It turns out that during his brief stateside hiatus to obtain an artificial hand, the golden gun found its way into the hands of Musa, a former gardner now a translator for the Marines. Musa is familiar with Uday Hussein's passion for gold as he was the designer of the animal topiary of the palace garden, a commission that cost him dearly.
If I had to single out one actor for the most stellar performance it would be Arian Moyayed. Musa, unlike the Tiger and the Marines, is in his native country — except that it's a place he no longer recognizes and feels as alienated in as the others. He's the easiest to identify with character, a man with an artistic sensibility searching for a way to survive in a land freed of the brutal regime he hated but not much better, given the disillusioning actions of the Americans he now works for. Moyaeyd conveys this struggle with wonderful sensitivity.
Adding a nice touch of creepy villainy is Hirach Titizian as the scarily sturdy ghost of Uday Hussein. The dictator's son comes es on scene with his dead and equally villainous brother's head in hand. Necar Aadegan and Sheila Vand do well with multiple female roles. Vand is especially good as a prostitute negotiating with Tom who tries to explain the special sexual needs his artificial hand calls for.
Director Moises Kaufman has created a vivid and quite filmic production, greatly enhanced by Derek McLane's set (a wonderful 2-tier affair that eases scene-to-scene transitions). Adding to the overall excellence of the production is David Lander's expressive lighting, David Zinn's apt costumes (wisely avoiding anything costum-y for Robin Williams' Tiger), Kathryn Bostic's music and Cricket S. Myer's sound effects. Kaufman who also directed I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project, and 33 Variations has seen to it that the dominant heaviness and despair is leavened with but not overwhelmed by the occasional laughs.
Original and bubbling with ideas as this play is, and even with the ticket selling Robin Williams name above the title, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a risky Broadway venture. It's a serious play about a war most people would like to forget, and all those ghosts aren't everyone's cup of theater. Ideally it would be in a more intimate theater. I hope the Richard Rodgers Theater's 1350 seats will find enough takers to keep this fascinating Tiger a.k.a. "Dante in Hades," from being bested by all the foot tapping musicals in the neighborhood. s