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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 30, 2011

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which is having its New York premiere at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is certainly the most distinguished work to arrive on Broadway this season. This is true because of the across-the-board excellence of the artists who have contributed to this production, from the playwright to the director (Moises Kaufman), from the top-notch team of designers to the brilliant ensemble of actors on stage. Here is a play that's been crafted to entertain, to engage, to challenge, and to jolt its audience—and that succeeds in all of these endeavors, shatteringly. Joseph makes us confront the world we've made for ourselves in the past decade. By turns darkly comic, grotesque, horrifying, absurd, and deeply disturbing, Bengal Tiger demands to be seen by people who care about humanity and art and their troubling devolutions in the 21st century.

The play unfolds in Baghdad, in 2003, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The city is on fire, we are told repeatedly; the Bengal tiger, still encaged in the ruins of the city's zoo, sets the scene for us:

The lions escaped two days ago....All eight of them took off as soon as the wall got blown up....I said, Leo, you dumb stupid bastard, they're killing anything that moves.

Along with the Tiger (played by Robin Williams, who embodies the character and the play's mood perfectly; Joseph says in the script that the Tiger is "older, past his prime, yet still tough....His language is loose, casual, his profanity is second nature"), we are quickly introduced to two U.S. Marines, Kev and Tom. These two are archetypal, which may be why we take to them right away despite their obvious character flaws. Kev is relatively uneducated and relatively dumb, a kid who has bought into the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld party line and talks endlessly about the Iraqis he will waste and the pussy he will get now that he's a soldier. Tom is smarter, a bit older, much more focused and, as we soon discover, motivated by extreme greed. He was one of the marines who raided the Hussein family compound, and in the ensuing looting that followed he came away with two items belonging to Hussein's son Uday—a gold-plated gun and a gold toilet seat. His determination to hang on to these treasures fuels much of the plot.

The other living human character is Musa, a translator who works for the marines. We learn that he is an Iraqi who once worked for Uday Hussein, an artist and a gardener who created beautiful topiary animals for his employer before the war. Musa struggles to balance a generous creative soul with the more urgent need to survive; his destiny becomes intertwined with the two marines', and it is his sacrifices and compromises—past, present, and future—that compel us throughout the play.

Everyone in Bengal Tiger is haunted by ghosts, and some of the characters become ghosts themselves. The Tiger is the first to die and he spends the play roaming the wreckage of the city, gaining immense knowledge and searching for God. Meanwhile, God and knowledge seem to have abandoned the living: in the play's most powerful scene, we witness Kev making a night raid on an Iraqi home, and it's a nightmare of chaos—Kev, his interpreter Musa, and two Iraqi women shouting in alarm and fear creating a cacophony that no one can understand. As Kev waves his weapon around and the women shriek and dash to the floor, we realize that there's no objective, no purpose; the utter meaninglessness of war has never been so clearly and cleanly communicated.

Joseph's script is ultimately too bleak to bring catharsis, but it's rich, intelligent, and enormously powerful. Kaufman's staging deploys everything that's magic in the theatre in service of the play's sad vision; obstacles imposed by time, space, and mortality vanish here, as the characters journey between a "real" world and a phantasmagoric other that are equally apocalyptic. Derek McLane's deceptively simple set enables Kaufman's artistry brilliantly, especially when the ghostly topiaries (provided by John Creech Design) materialize. David Zinn's costumes are realistic for the human characters and stark and evocative for Williams's Tiger.

Williams's performance, as I've already noted, is magnificent; the fine actor we know from Awakenings and Dead Poets' Society and Good Will Hunting is at the top of his form here. Star quality aside, he never overshadows his fellows on stage, all of whom deliver exceptional work: Arian Moayed, heartbreaking as the conflicted Musa; Glenn Davis, affable and then jarring as Tom; and Brad Fleischer, tracing Kev's remarkable trajectory from naif to lost soul and back again. In a variety of roles, Necar Zadegan, Hrach Titizian, and Sheila Vand offer invaluable support.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is not a forgiving or easy play; it's tough in the ground it covers and tougher still for the mirror it reflects back at us. Is this what Americans have become in the decade after 9/11? Is there a way back? There's no drama more incendiary—or more necessary—at this particular moment.