note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Two young American soldiers in wartorn Iraq chat nervously, standing before the cage of a personified tiger that’s hungrily pacing back and forth.
The tiger soliloquizes, lamenting how he, a Bengal tiger, is alone, far away from home, caged in a Baghdad zoo. He’s under close watch, ever since eight lions “stupidly” escaped, roamed the shelled and debris- strewn streets, and were hunted down, shot and killed.
As cooler-headed, experienced soldier Tom watches the tiger and chats to Kev, his nervous, trigger-happy, bravado-spouting soldier partner who’s taunting the tiger, suddenly the tiger lunges, attacks, and bites off Tom’s hand. Although their orders are to not kill any zoo animal, Kev fires to save Tom’s life, killing the beast, who admits he gets stupid when he’s hungry.
Thus opens Company One’s fascinating, fast-paced, New England premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominated finalist, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” an existential mosaic that provocatively and artistically asks multi-level questions, leaving theatergoers to provide their own answers.
Dahlia Al-Habieli’s handsome set, nicely aided by Jen Rock’s lighting, Edward Young’s contrasting prayer and battle sounds, and Lauren Duffy’s special effects, create striking insight between life, death, and the ghostly afterworld.
Like a multifaceted diamond, Joseph’s play, (which starred Robin Williams as the Tiger on Broadway), sardonically tackles the Iraq war, its destructive aftermath, Saddam Hussein and his sons’ penchant for luxurious and violent lifestyles, and Baghdad’s unsettled ghosts who are trapped in a spiritual netherworld. As they aimlessly wander through the streets, passing and greeting each other, they’re searching for the answer to where’s God and their ethereal destination - whether it even exists - while they haunt and torment the living.
“This place is lousy with ghosts,” the Tiger cracks.
There’s allegorical Biblical symbolism ribboned throughout the production, too. Most of the action occurs in Uday Hussein’s garden, a beautiful spot, where lowly gardener-turned-translator Musa created large animal topiaries. Cries to prayer, five times daily, echo from nearby mosques, their stately minarets stretching skyward in this city, reputed to be the site of Adam and Eve’s Eden.
Like the fingers of Tom’s chomped-off hand, the narrating Tiger, human and spectral characters are tied together through hatred, greed, guilt, and horror.
After Tom is taken to the US for medical treatment and prosthetic hand replacement, Kev freaks out, constantly haunted by the Tiger. He commits suicide after Tom returns and visits him in the hospital, but not to comfort Kev. Tom wants Uday’s gold gun he took as booty when he shot and killed the cruel tyrant. Tom also wants to retrieve Uday’s gold toilet seat he hid in the desert.
Kev doesn’t have the gun. Musa does. And as Kev can’t escape the tiger’s “visits,” Uday, carrying his dead brother’s head, taunts Musa, calling him a traitor for helping the Americans. Uday also conjures up more personal, painful memories, that drive mild-mannered Musa to murder and near suicide.
Under the magical wand of Company One Artistic Director-Director Shawn LaCount, we believe portly, bearded Rick Park is, indeed, this “existential ramification” of a tiger searching for God, meaning to his existence, and his spiritual future. Mason Sand is terrifyingly evil as Uday. Ray Ramirez as Tom and Michael Knowlton as Kev are also outstanding, capturing our disdain and sympathy; while Michael Dwan Singh as Musa is gut-wrenching. Hallie Friedman’s charming portrayals as Musa’s virginal dead sister, Hadia, and a teen-age prostitute, and Salma Milia as a deteriorating leper woman, powerfully round out the cast.
BOX INFO:New England premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s two-act play, appearing through Nov. 17, at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater, 539 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; final Saturday matinee, 4 p.m. Tickets:$20-$38; students with ID, $15; student rush, $10. Call 617-933-8600, visit the Box Office at 527 Tremont St., or www.BostontheatreScene.com.