BOTTOM LINE: Metaphysical quandaries and serious subject matter, communicated by Robin Williams as a sassy tiger.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is an engrossing new play by prolific young playwright Rajiv Joseph (in his Broadway debut). Although the production has just opened in New York, it comes to the East coast highly regarded after two successful runs in Los Angeles in 2009-2010 and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Right away you expect some serious substance, and Bengal Tiger eagerly delivers.
Quirky and playful yet wholly mournful and philosophical, Bengal Tiger offers its audience a spectrum of emotion. Set in Baghdad in 2003, it follows the journey (read: demise) of Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis), two American soldiers serving in the war. As the play begins, they are stationed at the zoo, but after a hungry tiger has his way with Tom’s hand, Kev is given new duties as Tom is sent home to recover. The trauma of this incident sets of a chain of events that shake Kev and Tom to the core, as if war itself wasn’t disturbing enough. As they try to reclaim their senses of self, images of the past haunt their grasp of reality.
At the same time, two Iraqis posit their own fates: army translator Musa (Arian Moayed) searches for new purpose in his war-torn country, while the Tiger (Robin Williams) desperately seeks the meaning of life from a God who has given him little to work with. Lamenting his violent urges, he says “What could I do? I’m a tiger.” It’s hard to fault him for his jungle cat nature. In a sense, both of these Iraqis (well, the Tiger being a recent transplant) are captive in their own helplessness. But the same can be said for the American soldiers, who can’t escape their violent experiences either.
Bengal Tiger is a theoretical study of purpose, and employs a pseudo-reality, a sort of dream world, to engage its characters with their inner battles. Guilt and a sense of desolation consume each of these four creatures in some way, and the ghosts of their pasts appear often to show that they can’t truly escape their consciences. At the same time though, can one be truly responsible for an action that was unavoidable, or at least unprompted? Kev, Tom and Musa bemoan their situations through their actions; the Tiger does so in direct address to the audience. And this is one angsty Tiger searching for atonement.
The sentimentality with which this story unfolds provides a sympathetic understanding of the plights on stage. It sucks to be everyone. Can you be inherently bad, even though you want so desperately to be good? At what point do you stop fighting the unavoidable? Joseph’s play is layered with philosophical quandaries and metaphorical suggestions. It is not a passive experience, but rather provides some consequential questions to consider long after leaving the theatre. He is quite successful in this endeavor, particularly through the use of humor. This play is a drama to be sure, but it’s also highly entertaining.
Bengal Tiger is also incredibly successful because its cast is so astute in its portrayal of these individuals. Williams is expectedly outstanding, embracing all comic moments in his existential crisis. Fleischer and Davis are compelling as troubled soldiers torn between a jumbled sense of right and wrong (their performances evoke memories of the movie Hurt Locker). Moayed is self-assured and strong-willed, regardless of his circumstances, which seem tragically predictable. Hrach Titizian plays the ghost of Uday Hussain, Saddam’s son, as an ideal villain. And Necar Zadegan and Sheila Vand, as the female characters, provide an important wholeness to the scope of those affected by a collapsing nation.
Director Moisés Kaufman maintains a tense and uneasy tone throughout the play. There is often a gun on stage, and the volatile nature of 2003 Iraq is clearly communicated to an audience on the edge of their seats. Kaufmann also astutely balances the humor with the weight of the struggle. Visually, Bengal Tiger is stunning. The lights, by David Lander, are nearly their own character, guiding the audience’s perception of reality. This kind-of-real, kind-of-surreal world is effectively projected by the entire design team.
For a Broadway experience that leaves you with something to think about long after the curtain falls, Bengal Tiger is a wonderful choice. It’s totally engaging, deep and ultimately satisfying. It also offers a captivating look at faith without honing in on specific religious ideals – everyone in this play is different, yet very, very similar. Bengal Tiger is moving theatre, if you’re open to it.
(Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo plays at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street through July 3, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $75-$135 and are available at ticketmaster.com. Use discount code 2BENBOX for 30% off tickets through April 10th only. For more show info visit bengaltigeronbroadway.com.)
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