Pathetic ghosts shuffle aimlessly through the battered boulevards of Baghdad, scavenging for some kind of answers. The child with half a face gone, the sub literate GI, Hussein’s decadent son Uday, the Bengal tiger from the zoo…
Rajiv Joseph’s surreal play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in a striking production a Hillcrest’s Ion Theatre, doesn’t nearly define the chaos of “shock and awe” brutality but it does well in phrasing the questions. Only through such an oblique, savage warp of story-telling, perhaps, can the subject successfully be approached.
Ion’s Claudio Raygoza has accomplished wonders in the tiny, claustrophobic space. (Brian Redfern’s stolid set, ominously alien and sterile, is a bit too surface pristine but Courtney Fox Smith and Karin Filijan nail the costumes and lighting, respectively.) However it’s Raygoza the actor, playing the loathsome immorality of Sadaam Hussein’s notorious son, who is the lift that gives the play wings. He and Brian Abraham, who plays with frantic despair the Iraqi Everyman, heir to all the misery of the city’s survivors.
Jake Rosko and Evan Kendig work right on the edge of caricature as a pair of U.S. Marines, scared and stimulated by the nightmare swirling around them. They look right, they sound right and they are all too convincing as specimens of war’s corrupting power. (I salute MSGT Willie E. Fair, USMC ret, who has precisely the eye for accuracy that so enhances the impact of such make-believe, and I compliment the management for including him as a consultant.) One of them becomes an increasingly subtle philosopher after death and the other gets a prosthesis. All this and more Raygoza makes plausible and moving.
His one falter is what might be expected to be a major strength of such a project. The excellent actor Ron Choularton is a disappointing tiger.
It takes the author less than a single scene to make the idea acceptable: This tiger, one of the few exhibits to survive for awhile after the invasion, is a problem easily dealt with through violence but impossible to dismiss as a symbol. He is the fantasy wire that runs through the play, threading the beads that are the other characters, and the writing makes his mixture of cynicism, desperation and confusion feel universal.
But Choularton plays this like a Cockney rag-picker, dressed in Arabian discards and sidling about more grumpy than haunted. Given the opportunity to play such a gaudy concept, I would have thought that one of our better actors would find a persuasive voice, an exotic look and, above all, a movement vocabulary to mine the possibilities. (OK, I’m haunted by Zero Mostel as Ionesco’s rhinoceros but there are plenty other famous turns as snake, bird, lizard, bat, chicken, dog, etc.)
Rajiv Joseph’s play is not entirely persuasive but Ion’s production certainly is, even without a bright-burning tiger.