Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, L.A.

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Brad Fleischer (left) and Kevin Tighe in the Mark Taper
Forum production of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
Photo by Craig Schwartz

By:  Rajiv Joseph
With:  Kevin Tighe
Directed by:  Moisés Kaufman
Through May 30, 2010
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

Last year “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.  Rajiv Joseph had been awarded several grants for  its development.  When seen at the  Douglas, it had been workshopped extensively around the country and the author was still rewriting and rearranging scenes in the week prior to the opening.  An “enhanced” “Tiger” is now at the Taper.  The story has not changed, the entire cast and creative team remain the same.  Though generally to the good, I am not sure what the “enhancement” is.   Last year’s version was shortlisted for the Pulitzer.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq, one of the casualties of war was a Bengal tiger.  He was shot by one of our troops when the tiger bit off a finger and mauled the arm of another soldier.  Most of the other animals had escaped in the invasion, but the tiger remained caged and was subsequently guarded by two American soldiers.  Tigers are not to be trifled with, and zoo animals do not do so well in the middle of a war.  Starving citizens of Berlin slaughtered many zoo animals at the end of the World War II, and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” gives a vivid description of the fate of the animals in the Warsaw zoo during that war– as well as an account of amazing bravery.  But I digress.  Rajiv Joseph used the facts of the tiger story as a jumping-off point for what is described as a magical realist fantasy.  It aims to be humorous as well as existentially provocative.  A little war-is-hell-on-people and “What are we doing in Baghdad anyway?” are thrown in for good measure, but they are not salient features.

The tiger himself is wonderfully played by a suitably gruff Kevin Tighe, who looked like he was having a great time.  His is a tiger who has been around a long time and has seen a lot of things.  With sardonic strutting and pontification, he conveys the very essence of tiger all without any cute tiger costumes or imitation tiger movements.  Live or dead, this is one tough, old, opinionated tiger.  He has always considered himself an atheist, but dead he is now open to epistemological thoughts such as, “When an atheist finds himself walking around after he’s dead he has some serious re-evaluating to do.”  Now who would not love a tiger like that?  He alone may be worth the price of admission.

Basically, the story is that two marines, one seasoned, one very naive and slow-witted, are guarding the tiger’s cage after many other of the zoo’s animals have escaped.  The seasoned marine tries to share some of his ration with the tiger, leading the animal to bite off the marine’s hand.  After all, he is a tiger.  The other marine has been fondling Uday Hussein’s gold-plated revolver, which his buddy liberated during the attack on Baghdad, and is itching to pull the trigger.  He kills the tiger, who then becomes a ghost and who haunts the young marine, driving him crazy, ultimately leading to his suicide and his own transformation into a ghost.   Are you still with me?

Musa is their translator.   Before the invasion Musa was Uday Hussein ‘s talented, animal-topiary-creating gardener.  Uday, of course, is dead, which also makes him a ghost free to haunt the gardener in the logic of Rajiv Joseph’s make-believe world.  As for Musa, he has somehow taught himself perfectly grammatical English, stumbling only over idioms in some not very funny scenes.  Military profanity seems to be the hardest part of English for him to master.  Strange, when traveling in third world countries, it can seem that English profanities are almost universally understood. Musa is trying to survive and turns out to be willing to serve whichever master.  He just wants to get along.  There are more deaths and more ghosts, but that should give you a sense of the story.

Joseph uses the ghostly world to superficially explore some meaning-of-life issues.  The tiger is peeved to find himself a presence, given that when he was alive he believed he was better than any other animal and when dead he would simply cease to be.  Here he is stuck in some sort of limbo and having to deal with the idea that maybe there is a god after all.  Kev, the naive soldier, becomes a very wise ghost whose intellectual transformation is not well explained, and really does not make sense.  Uday’s ghost never questions why he is there; he simply persists in his sadistic narcissism.  Some torturers never die; they never even fade away.  Musa was destroyed by Uday’s rape of his sister; as a ghost, Uday the torturer just continues to torment Musa.

By basing his story on an obscure, almost irrelevant, incident, Joseph’s goal was to create an apolitical play about Iraq, a Herculean task.  When I first saw “Tiger” I found it impossible to watch without thinking of the implications of the war.  This time the story seemed less provocative of those thoughts; I am not certain why.

Although the basis for the story is hardly humorous, the humor is the best part.  The majority of the good lines belong to the tiger.  What I find surprising is that “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” evokes almost no emotion and lacks an arc despite an underlying  robust story.  It might provoke anger, however, if it were to be produced in a red, Bible Belt state.

When I reviewed “Bengal Tiger” last year I said, “The result [of all the workshopping and rewrites], I fear, is more like a giraffe, a beast who has often been described as looking as though it had been designed by a committee.  Only the tiger lived up to the promise.”  This viewing I walked out at the end saying, “Each character was individually very well drawn — almost like each was written by a separate author.”  That was both the bad news and the good.

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