Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo
LOS ANGELES REVIEW by Willard Manus
America's misadventures in Viet Nam were captured in memorable theatrical fashion by David Rabe's trilogy and John DiFusco's Tracers. Now the Iraqi War has spawned a play to match those important, ground-breaking works--BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, by Rajiv Joseph (directed by Moises Kaufman).
Set in 2003, the play centers on two young American marines (Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer), who have been assigned to guard duty at the Baghdad Zoo, which has been bombed by American forces as part of its "shock and awe" strategy in Iraq. All the animals, including the lions, have fled their shattered cages, only to find death, not freedom, in the city's war-torn streets.
Only one animal remains alive in the zoo, a Bengal tiger (played with caustic brilliance by Kevin Tighe) who talks directly to the audience. Tiger must listen to the uptight, trigger-happy Marines as they bicker and bitch about the absurdity of their situation, warriors reduced to keeping watch over a lone, hungry beast.
Kev, a country boy, is overwhelmed by the chaos of war, but Tom (a street-smart black) thinks he's on top of things, having copped and hidden a golden toilet seat from Saddam Hussein's palace, along with a gold-plated pistol which once belonged to one of the dictator's sons. Tom means to smuggle his loot out of Iraq and finance his future in USA with it. Unfortunaely, he gets into an altercation with Tiger which results in his right hand being bitten off and Tiger being shot dead. Tiger then becomes a ghost, wandering in and out of the unfolding story and commenting on its action in bleak, nihilistic, but oft-hilarious fashion.
Both Tom and Kev end up in a military hospital, the former to receive a prosthetic hand, the latter to recover from shellshock. The other characters include Musa (Arian Mosyed), a grief-stricken Iraqi gardener turned translator; Uday Hussein, the dictator's son (Hrach Titizian), another ghost; an Iraqi woman (Necar Zadegan) and Musa's younger sister (Sheila Vand, who also plays a prostitute). The actors deliver assured and superb performances.
Joseph ties all of his disparate characters together in a tightly-knit, highly-charged way, mixing realism with metaphor and fable, rage and profanity with poetry. The result is a strikingly original and visceral drama that signals the arrival of an important new dramatist on the American stage.
Joseph sees Baghdad through Dantean eyes: the city became a circle of hell and everyone in it--Marines, civilians and animals alike--is condemned to suffer the tortures of the damned, with no hope of escape or relief.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Call 213-628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org