Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo: my review

by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Playing through July 3, 2011 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre
Rating: * * * (out of 5)

"You'd think that being killed would be the last bad thing to happen," grouses the ghost of a Bengal tiger, recently shot to death by a U.S. Marine. But the tiger (Robin Williams), an unabashed atheist, quickly discovers that death is not at all "the last bad thing," at least not in wartime Baghdad. Finding himself dead and yet still prowling the streets of the ruined city, he is unsettled by his continuing existence; death frees him from captivity, yet he is still trapped in an unexpected afterlife. In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, the eponymous big cat (wisely, not played in tiger costume) serves as a kind of feline Virgil to the audience, whom he addresses directly, discussing his observations and revelations in the afterlife as well as providing the thread that connects the disparate stories of Baghdad's denizens, both the living and the dead.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph based the story of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on a 2003 Reuters news headline, in which a U.S. soldier guarding a tiger at the war-ravaged Baghdad Zoo made the foolish mistake of trying to feed the creature through the bars, and predictably got his hand mauled. This journalistic connection somehow seems appropriate, as journalists and playwrights alike have long nurtured certain assumptions about the Iraq war and America's role in it. They tend to shoehorn the average American serviceman in Iraq into one of two unfortunate stock-character templates: the stupid grunt or the greedy grunt. This play hews to conventional wisdom in portraying its two Marines: Kev (Brad Fleischer), a trigger-happy rube with a room-temperature IQ, and Tom (Glenn Davis), a smart but avaricious bounty hunter whose seething anger is barely contained. Joseph doesn't do much with these stock characters at first, allowing them to fall into the well-worn ruts such characters seem to inhabit. The low-wattage Kev even struggles to convey the shades of meaning in the slang terms "bitch" and "pussy" to a curious Musa (Arian Moayed), the unit's Iraqi translator.

Musa is an unhappy man pinioned between two incompatible cultures. His fellow Iraqis see him as a traitor because he works for the Americans, and the Marines repeatedly call him a terrorist when he does things they don't understand. Before the war, Musa was a gardener who created an exquisite topiary garden for the Hussein family, and he continues to be haunted by horrific events from his past. Musa thus responds in a markedly peculiar fashion when one of the Marines shows him a gold gun looted from the presidential palace. There are three very different responses to this weapon, based on the experiences of each character. All Kev sees is a "sweet-ass" firearm. Tom, on the other hand (pun intended), believes he deserves to keep the gun since he was disabled by the tiger's mauling -- conveniently ignoring his own culpability in the event -- and money from the sale of the gun will guarantee he's set for life back in America. Musa, however, responds to the gun with dread, since he alone knows the history of this weapon and its owner. The gold gun -- clearly meant to be a symbol of modern-day Iraq: beautiful, deadly, highly valuable, with a long history of which Americans are largely ignorant -- is the former (if not current) property of Saddam Hussein's son Uday (Hrach Titizian).

The past is constantly present in Joseph's version of Iraq. Far from being insubstantial shades of the departed, the ghosts of this story do not fade away, but display as much evidence of life as the living characters -- if not more so, since they now have little to lose. They walk the streets, follow (and sometimes physically threaten) the living, have epiphanies, pray, hunt, eat, bleed, smoke. ("Even a dead man loves a Cuban," claims the voluble Uday.) In contrast, Musa, though portrayed as one of the living, might as well be one of the dead; he speaks freely with ghosts, allows them to play him like a puppet, and makes the same mistakes over and over again, forever serving "the tyrants" who rule his nation despite his heartfelt conviction that he has the soul of an artist. His memories of his little sister Hadia (Sheila Vand) and the guilt he carries with regard to her gruesome death are slowly consuming him from within until at last he is little more than a shell, to be filled with the vengeful motivations of other ghosts.

A warning to sensitive theatergoers: if you haven't already gotten the memo, war ain't pretty. There are realistic simulations of blood and gore, of characters being shot, of characters going insane, and casually grisly descriptions of a dead child with half her head missing. The ghost of Uday Hussein carries around his brother Qusay's severed head in a bag, and talks to it. There is a simulated hand-job, with the john's back to the audience, and a reference to a rape and murder. The Marines consistently speak in what author Tom Wolfe calls "fuck patois" -- the richness of the English language dwindling away, in their mouths, to a desolation of limited vocabulary laced with strings of vulgarity -- and the tiger is habitually, casually profane. But there are also moments of unexpected beauty, as when the devastated city is filled with the sound of calls to prayer, or when Musa recalls talking tenderly with Hadia.

One of the most profound ideas put forth in the play is that knowledge, in and of itself, does not grant wisdom. The dead of Baghdad are transformed as the knowledge of the universe begins to flow into them; the tiger begins to have disturbing insights and revelations, and poor Kev goes from having a leak in the think-tank to being "a brainiac in the afterlife." But this knowledge comes to them bit by bit, in fragmented pieces; it is still up to each individual to work patiently toward synthesizing these pieces into a cohesive whole, like the slow completion of a million-piece jigsaw puzzle. The process is, like Iraq itself, complicated. Like the original definition of the word algebra, it calls for a reuniting of fragmented parts. Some characters simply do not have the patience to figure it all out, repeatedly asking God to explain it all, or turning their backs on Him altogether when He fails to appear. "Calling out to God in this mess!" scoffs the tiger, not understanding that times of extremity tend to be exactly when human beings try calling on their Maker for help making sense of it all.

Perhaps because they are busy demanding answers from a God who never seems to respond, the characters usually fail to show each other basic human kindness; subsequently, many of the characters fail to garner sympathy from the audience. For example, at one point Tom visits the mentally distraught Kev in the hospital, but he demonstrates little patience for his suffering comrade; he has only come in search of the missing golden gun that Kev used to shoot the tiger. Kev, under surveillance because he is constantly haunted by the shade of the tiger, regards Tom as his best friend, to the extent that he wrote Tom a letter -- for the barely-literate Kev, this must have been a major undertaking -- but it means nothing to Tom, who would just as well forget the incident that caused him to lose his right hand. Later Tom seeks a hand-job from an Iraqi teenager -- a girl who strongly reminds Musa of his dead sister -- and compels a visibly flustered Musa to explain to her exactly what Tom wants her to do to him. True compassion arrives only very late in the story, when an old Iraqi leper woman (Necar Zadegan) shows kindness and hospitality to a stranger because she possesses a deep, lifelong understanding of the nature of suffering. Indeed, if anyone has good reason to be bitter, she does -- but her experiences have led her to wisdom and given her a genuine concern for others. The scene is like an oasis of cold, sweet water after several hours in a desert of casual cruelty.

Bengal Tiger has its problems. Effective play writing, at least in this writer's opinion, isn't that far removed from poetry composition; in both cases, the goal is to create maximum punch through precise word use, deliberately leaving some blanks for the audience to fill in. But Bengal Tiger, at least in its current incarnation, is plagued by excessive wordiness. The entire ensemble cast does its best with the material it has been given, but one senses the script could benefit from undergoing one more draft to cut any remaining fat from the character monologues; even the title seems to need sharpening up. Joseph, still a young playwright, seems to feel compelled to tell everything he knows through his characters, rather than trusting these talented actors to show only what is needful and let the audience discover the rest. This flaw is especially noticeable in the character of Uday, who could be truly horrifying if he would only shut up once in a while.

Uday's flaws, in fact, mirror a problem that is endemic to the structure of the play. He is a monster specifically because he lacks the thing that makes us human; he is well-educated and intelligent, he has strong and brutal appetites, but he has no heart -- no compassion or empathy to mitigate his worst impulses or harness his intellect. He is far worse than the tiger, who only kills for food -- "It wasn't cruel. It was lunch," the tiger says matter-of-factly about attacking a human -- whereas Uday kills for sport. Bengal Tiger's problem is similar: it is wordy and it is bloody, but it often lacks the heart that would give these elements greater meaning.

The play ends on an unresolved note; there is no satisfying coda. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice on Joseph's part, as the Iraq war is likewise unresolved. But art is not merely a cold reflection of life; the artist must also impose meaning and context. Otherwise, like the fragmented knowledge of the ghosts of Baghdad, the tale remains a striking but ultimately empty collection of broken pieces, conveying no true wisdom to its audience.

[Previously posted in the forum of the Robin Williams Fansite]

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