There are no easy answers in Rajiv Joseph’s terrific play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but there is a hell of a lot of interesting questions to ponder. Now being given a superlative mounting at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, this is a production that – like the ghosts of the dead in the play – will haunt you long after you leave the theater.
From the opening scene of two American servicemen guarding a decrepit Baghdad Zoo in war-torn Iraq to the appearance of the caustic tiger of the play’s title – through to the poignant scenes of the mutilated and the tortured, this is a play full of twists, turns and surprises that will truly catch you unaware. Playwright Joseph mixes the comic and the tragic with equal skill and the audience’s brain cells get a thorough workout. Metaphysical musings on life, death, and God are interspersed with visceral, jolting scenes of violence and the random mayhem that is indicative of the futility of all war.
Referring to a true news item of September 21, 2003 where a U.S. Soldier killed a tiger in a Baghdad Zoo, playwright Joseph takes this brief nugget of news and uses it as the mooring point from which to riff off on a fast succession of seemingly random tragi-comic scenes that are highly interrelated in the final analysis. Just as the Matisse painting in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is the touchstone from which a whirlwind of events unfolds, this Bengal tiger is the touchstone of Joseph’s play as he becomes the all-observant narrator of this sad yet very real and comic story.
The play unfolds with the magic realism of the great South American writers - a bewitching topiary hovers over the decrepit remains of a mosque, hands are severed, ghosts of the dead appear and reappear, and an animal speaks. Playwright Joseph seems to be very interested in the juxtaposition of the rough vulgarity of war (the profanity used here is necessary and stronger than any David Mamet play) with the comic and the surreal. Director Jeremy Skidmore has all these themes held firmly in his tight hands – the pacing of the play proceeds from one divergent tone to another with an air of authority and innovative skill.
It has been quite awhile since I have seen each member of a cast work together on the same high level to such a degree- – usually, there is one actor who is lacking in energy or an actor who may overact a bit. Eric Hissom’s Tiger is both ferociously angry and comically observant. Felipe Cabezas (Kev) and Danny Gavigan (Tom) – the American Serviceman of this tale- – are very natural and spontaneous in their interpretations; their acting choices always seem fresh and unstudied. Pomme Koch (Uday Hussein) is appropriately smarmy and malicious in his role. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Musa) is superlative - his acting is all of a piece and his cries of anguish sear into one’s soul. As his character struggles for meaning in the insanity of war, the audience can feel his pain and his personal battle for redemption and self responsiblity amid the madness and chaos.
Rounding out the cast, Salma Shaw in the multiple roles of Hadia, Iraqi Teenager, and Nurse and Nadia Mahdi as the Iraqi Woman are very effective and striking.
The challenging text of this play calls out for superb technical support and the scenic design of Tony Cisek is more than up to the task. Cisek’s choices are so insightful that I do not want to give them away here. Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna effectively navigates the alternating shifts of tone with effective lighitng choices. The sound design and composition of Eric Shimelonis is particularly evocative from the sounds of helicopters flying over head to the calls to prayer to the sounds of birds tweeting in the topiary.
Not for the faint of heart, Round House Theatre’s production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is superior fare and the best all-around production I have ever seen at Round House. The cyclical anguish of all parties – living or dead – that have been touched by the insanities of war and the need for connection seems to be the overriding theme of a play that explores many, many themes indeed. Playwright Rajiv Joseph seems to be saying that we are all connected even in death.
Do not miss this brilliant production!
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo plays through September 30, 2012 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.