BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO
By Rajiv Joseph
Mark Taper Forum – April 14 – May 30, 2010
When this play premiered in 2009 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, in Culver City, I very deliberately avoided it, simply because of what the name implied. As an overly empathetic animal lover, I cannot tolerate the thought of any creature suffering and assumed that this play would, at the very least, touch on that. Animal lover or not, when my season tickets at the Taper call, I feel compelled to go. Thankfully, my original reservations about this marvelous piece were misplaced.
In a nutshell, yes, there is a tiger in the ruins of the Baghdad Zoo when the play opens – a tiger played to his grumpy hilt by the only semi-name actor in the piece, Kenneth Tighe. Tighe does not attempt to impersonate a 4-legged animal, however; this tiger is all smart-mouthed humor and dead-on (no pun intended) philosophical musings, relayed with a deep, growly, riveting voice.
Tigh-er is being guarded by a pair of rough-edged American marines – one a self-deluding thief, Tom (Glenn Davis), who feels entitled to the spoils of war and the other, Kev (a slightly over-the-top in Act I Brad Fleischer, who hits his stride in Act II), a stereotypical dumber-than-dirt newcomer to Iraq. A truly stupid encounter with the caged tiger relieves Tom of his right hand and when he returns from his rehab in the States with a state-of-the-art new hand, it causes a certain sexual problem for him: Masturbating left-handed just doesn’t suit him! He enlists the aid of the camp interpreter, Musa (the outstanding Arian Moayed), to explain to a young prostitute (Sheila Vand) exactly what it is he needs her to do for him. This entire exchange is done in Arabic and is hysterically funny.
The play is peppered throughout with extremely active ghosts, the most compelling of which is Uday Hussein, slithering around the stage with the severed head of his brother in a plastic bag. Hrach Titizian is a wonder to behold as Sadam’s most feared and hated son.
The uniformly excellent cast is rounded out by Necar Zadegan, playing both a very much alive Iraqi woman and a hauntingly deformed leper.
I haven’t read the notes in the program yet, but here’s my take on the allegory of the caged animals: As the tiger explains it, he was minding his own business in the Sumatran jungle, having just lunched on a pair of yummy children, when he was captured and transported to this Iraqi jail. Although fed and kept “safe”, he spent the next dozen or so years in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the bombing of Baghdad resulted in the escape of his fellow inmates – a group of lions – he chose to remain in his cage. He discovered that the newly freed lions were almost immediately shot and killed by their so-called liberators and/or “fellow” Iraqi citizens. So, which is better? To be trapped in a place you can never leave (Iraq under Sadam Hussein) or to be liberated, only to suffer years of countless humiliations and losses, thanks to your former enemies? It’s a terrible choice at best and one with which the people of Iraq must deal, as the world watches.
– K. Malone