Musings on Cruelty, Guilt and God
(Culver City, Calif. - Sunday, May 18, 2009) Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a darkly humorous, haunting new play set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, in which the lives and, in some cases, the afterlives of two American soldiers, an Iraqi translator, the ghost of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, and a Bengal tiger all intersect in a surreal and gently balanced view of war and its aftermath.
Earlier this year the play was selected as an NEA Outstanding New American Play as part of the National Endowment for the Arts New Play Development Program hosted by Arena Stage, and playwright Rajiv Joseph also received the 2009 Kesselring Fellowship for his work on the play.
Directed by Moisés Kaufman, the cast features Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer, Arian Moayed, Kevin Tighe, Hrach Titizian, Sheila Vand and Necar Zadegan.
Gerald: It will be impossible to review this play without throwing in a few spoilers. The tiger of the title is played as a human by a human (Kevin Tighe). Imprisoned in the Baghdad zoo, he is shot by American troops who are patrolling the grounds. The tiger spends the rest of the play as a ghost, wandering through scenes and wondering about the meaning of life (and war and death).
Georja: When we first meet the tiger, he is droll, intelligent and self explanatory. As he is stuck in a tiny cage in the beginning of the show, my animal loving instincts kicked in and I was on the alert for animal cruelty and what I thought were going to be (to me) unwatchable scenes. The tiger talks about his misfortune to end up in this zoo and his stupidity when he is hungry.
Gerald: This play is full of deliberate symbolism. The tiger seems to represent wild, predatory instinct. At one point he muses whether God is punishing him just because he spent his life preying on weaker things. I believe he's the spirit of war, a war that remains undead no matter how many times it's been pronounced to be over.
Georja: The two young (I daresay almost adolescent in sentiment) American soldiers brag on about their wartime experiences. Tom (Glenn Davis) offers a slim jim to the tiger and pushes it on him. He responds by biting his hand off. The other soldier, Kev (Brad Fleischer) kills him. Boom. Gone in the first scene. But not so fast...as is said by one of the Iraqi characters later in the show, "Americans think that when you kill something it is gone." The tiger later returns to haunt his killer, but not in a mean way. He becomes a epistemological philosopher, haunted himself by his quest for the meaning of life, cruelty, and God. The cruelty to animals is seen in the context of many harsh cruelties of the war in Iraq.
Gerald: Most of the characters, American and Iraqi, end up dead but still wandering around the stage, clueless as to their roles and the meaning of the strife that took their lives. Only the character of Uday Hussein -- Saddam's cruel son -- seems perfectly comfortable in the afterlife. He even gets to reenact the tortures he caused.
Georja: As you describe it it is very grim, but yet the characters are so well drawn and humorous in their own ways. Much of it is very ironic. They are all caught in a web of stupidity. There is much humanity and wit here even midst the sadness and cruelty. For all Kev's talk about being tough, he becomes completely unglued because he killed a tiger. Although Tom puts up walls with Kev, he is guilt ridden when Kev later is unable to handle the situation. Musa (Arian Moayed) the interpreter/gardener gets into funny riffs with the two of them when he can't understand the "casual" meanings of the much used word "bitch."
Gerald: The symbols are in your face. For example, Musa the gardener has created animal topiary sculptures at the zoo. Historically, the ancient land of Iraq, Mesopotamia, is considered the garden of civilization. And this lore even extends to the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers being the Garden of Eden. So the garden is apt. And so, symbolically, is the elusive loot the American soldiers hope to bring away -- Uday's golden toilet seat. Granted, the play is witty, but its theme is pointlessness and despair.
Georja: The Iraq War is indeed pointless and full of despair. It is hard to deal with the subject or to want to deal with the subject of the horrors of war when you get dressed up and go out for a night at the theater. But this play is so original and comes at the subject in unpredictable ways, that to me it is fascinating. The staging (scenic designer Derek Mclane) is also an asset with a huge Iraqi looking archway and the huge topiary animals. Throughout all this the animals are dying and no one gives them a second thought, except the tiger. And now the audience.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by Craig Schwartz
Center Theatre Group
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
May 17 - June 7
Tickets are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre or two hours prior to performances at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009, 8:00 pm
Wednesday, May 20, 2009, 8:00 pm
Thursday, May 21, 2009, 8:00 pm
Friday, May 22, 2009, 8:00 pm
Saturday, May 23, 2009, 2:00 pm
Saturday, May 23, 2009, 8:00 pm
Sunday, May 24, 2009, 1:00 pm
Sunday, May 24, 2009, 6:30 pm
Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 8:00 pm
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 8:00 pm
Thursday, May 28, 2009, 8:00 pm
Friday, May 29, 2009, 8:00 pm
Saturday, May 30, 2009, 2:00 pm
Saturday, May 30, 2009, 8:00 pm
Sunday, May 31, 2009, 1:00 pm
Sunday, May 31, 2009, 6:30 pm
Tuesday, June 2, 2009, 8:00 pm
Wednesday, June 3, 2009, 8:00 pm
Thursday, June 4, 2009, 8:00 pm
Friday, June 5, 2009, 8:00 pm
Saturday, June 6, 2009, 2:00 pm
Saturday, June 6, 2009, 8:00 pm
Sunday, June 7, 2009, 1:00 pm
Sunday, June 7, 2009, 6:30 pm