Bengal Tiger burns bright at Round House Theatre

Rajiv Joseph’s 2010 play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, is one of the most inventive meditations on war you’re likely to encounter. Set in 2003 in Iraq, the play depicts the ravages of war with poetry and inspired weirdness—and without the battle scenes, macho bravado and massive body counts usually associated with combat plays.

Felipe Cabezas as Kev and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Musa (Photo: Danisha Crosby)

Director Jeremy Skidmore brings Mr. Joseph’s mad world to life in a ravishing production that emphasizes the rawness and the absurdity of a foreign land that is both under siege and at war with itself. The cast is on fire in roles notable for their depictions of the marvels and mutations of human (and animal, more about that later) nature. There are no enemies, no caricatures of the bad guys, just a clutch of souls caught in a situation they can’t make sense of.

Mr. Joseph’s far-reaching and fair-minded approach to the Iraq War begins in a zoo that has seen better days. Two Marines, the seasoned Tom (Danny Gavigan) and jittery newbie Kev (Felipe Cabezas), stand guard over this once-majestic spot and an old Tiger (Eric Hissom) pacing in his cage.

No Tigger-like creature is this. The Tiger is grizzled and wears rumpled prisoner clothing that would befit someone at Abu Ghraib. He’s also as potty-mouthed as a stand-up comedian, delivering caustically funny patter about the stupidity of lions and other observations of captivity while the soldiers stand at their posts, oblivious.

“It wasn’t cruel. It was lunch,” the Tiger says of killing two children, a little brother and sister who once strayed too far into the jungle. Oh well, he seems to say, I’m an animal. I got instincts. What can you do?

This philosophy is echoed in Tom’s rationale for some of his past behavior, such as stealing a gold-plated gun and golden toilet seat as a souvenir after shooting Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday (Pomme Koch) during a raid on his lavish palace—a place of nearly unimaginable horror, as well as beauty in the guise of an almost magical garden of animal topiary created by Musa (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a gardener-turned-translator for the U.S. military.

Eric Hissom as Tiger (Photo: Danisha Crosby)

Tony Cisek’s moody set cunningly depicts Baghdad as a ruined city with traces of its ancient magnificence as seen in the graceful arabesques of its architecture and filigreed ironwork and in the vestiges of the topiary garden.

Uday’s gold-plated gun proves to be a magnet for trouble and sorrow. It is the weapon Kev uses to shoot the Tiger after it bites off Tom’s hand after he teases it with food. It is the Holy Grail that brings the amputee Tom back to Iraq and Uday back from the dead to taunt the anguished Musa. It is the symbol for Musa of everything that is wrong and crazy and corrupt about war and the old life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The Tiger appears nonplussed by the gun’s lethal charms. In the afterlife, he gathers wisdom and ruminative powers, haunting Kev to the point of suicidal insanity. He prowls the streets of Baghdad—“the streets are lousy with ghosts,” he notes–while torturing himself with thoughts about the existence of God and whether it is some cosmic joke that God would create such a creature as a Tiger, ruled by appetite and the sweet kill.

Udah does not entertain such deep thoughts. In death, he is what he was in life—sharp, smart and proud of his monstrous acts. As depicted in a magnetic performance by Mr. Koch (is there a more electrifying entrance than strolling onstage swinging your brother’s severed head in a plastic bag?), he is an artisan of pain.

With the exception of the supremely self-assured Uday, all of the characters in Baghdad Zoo are linked by uncertainty and the queasy feeling of being trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing brings relief or release—not sex with a prostitute for Tom, not rebellion for Musa, not death for poor, muddled Kev.

Highly Recommended

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Scheduled to close Sept 30, 2012
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $26 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets

The afterlife does have its perks, however. Kev becomes “a straight-up brainiac” but his insights come too late and they are like wisps of ash curling in the wind. You are hard-pressed to decide what is more heartbreaking—the sight of Kev wandering around like an unfinished portrait of a young soldier or the Tiger, an old soul ravened by guilt and an ache for answers.

Broken men, broken beasts—that may not sound like anybody’s idea of a good time. Yet Mr. Joseph’s play mingles mystical elements with wild, black humor. It is a very unusual combination—at once surreal and recognizably human.

The cast adroitly handles the extremes of Mr. Joseph’s tilted universe. Mr. Gavigan and Mr. Cabezas are searing and intense as the Marines whose swagger and GI patois does nothing to prepare them for the lunacy they find themselves in. Mr. Ebrahimzadeh’s Musa is a virtuoso of conflicting feelings and shifting loyalties, while Salma Shaw is a sliver of light as both Musa’s young sister and a curious teenage prostitute.

If one thing compromises the sheer power of this production, it is the presentational style. It unfolds almost like a war pageant, keeping the audience at a discreet distance when we should feel as caged as the characters onstage.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo whittles life and death down to but two choices: hunt or be haunted.

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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zooby Rajiv Joseph, directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Featuring Eric Hissom, Danny Gavigan, Felipe Cabezas, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Pomme Koch, Salma Shaw and Nadia Mahdi. Scenic Designer: Tony Cisek, Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz, Lighting Designer: Andrew Cissna, Sound Designer: Eric Shimelonis, Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba, Dialect Coach/Assistant Director:  Jennifer Mendenhall,
Props Master: Rebecca Dieffenbach, Stage Manager: Maribeth Chaprnka. Produced by Round House Theatre. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard

Related:

Jeff Walker interviews director and cast about Bengal Tiger

BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO
DCTS review

John Glass . DramaUrge
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Larry Bangs . Gazette.net
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian
Jeffrey Walker . BroadwayWorld
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts

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