No Exit for ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’
By Isa Goldberg
Padding gracefully from side-to-side in his cage, Robin Williams embodies the essence of Tiger. It’s the walk, the measured soundless steps of a great big cat and the growl he emits from his phlegmy throat, which transform the hypermanic comedian into a carnivorous beast in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Surly and pining for home, Williams’s Tiger is at first an understated character – comically cynical and justifiably angry at his imprisonment.
As the story quickly evolves, the Tiger gets murdered in the first scene by one of the marines guarding his cage. After that he reappears as a ghost who haunts his murderer, driving the stupid marine who shot him to his own demise. That marine (Brad Fleischer) too, reappears among the living as does the murdered son of Saddam Hussein, Uday (Hrach Titizian), and the innocent young woman, (Sheila Vand), who he has raped and killed. In the war-decimated city of Baghdad the dead co-exist among the living. The only distinction is that the dead possess the penetrating powers of omniscience.
Here, the dead trapped in this earthly purgatory, provide insight into the chaos and sadistic acts of violence that have usurped reason from all living things. The marine who was an ignorant and arrogant character defined by the deadly weapon in his hands, becomes a brilliant and insightful ghost. Not only does he understand Arabic, he speaks it fluently, and he is knowledgeable about world literature. More importantly, he achieves a grasp of men’s actions, especially those of his fellow marine (played by Glenn Davis) who has returned to Iraq after a handicapping injury in order to collect the spoils of his looting.
n the world of the Baghdad Zoo, survival of the fittest knows no boundaries. This is war. It is also the existential predicament of everyman. As Musa (Arian Moayed), the Iraqi gardener says, “God has spoken. This world. This is what He’s said.” And while the imagery in Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer- nominated drama is at times intense and at moments lucid, the brutality of it all leaves us hungry for a transcendent message. As it stands, the play equates the American invasion of Iraq with a Tiger’s need to kill: imperialism equals survival. Taken literally this is a right wing absurdity. Surely, not what Rajiv Joseph must have meant.
In that regard, the play is a confusing mashup of strange and unpredictable elements: a Tiger becomes a ghost; ghosts haunt their victimizers; and Job-like litanies run smack through the middle of it all.
Williams’s role as the play progresses does not help matters. His philosophizing is impalpable, and leads to a finale in which he dreadfully overacts. As a matter of fact, the acting is inconsistent throughout. Titizian as Uday shouts so loudly that the need to tune him out takes over. Moayad, on the other hand, the creator of Uday’s topiary garden of exotic animals and now a translator for the marines, has a more nuanced role. Persecuted by Hussein’s regime, he finds that invasion represents an even greater denigration. Finally, Brad Fleischer transforms brilliantly from a trigger-happy idiot to a brilliant observer of his fellow marines’ mission.
Derek McLane has created a Mosque-stylewindow/cage through which we view the zoo, garden, hospital and dessert. While David Lander’s lighting focuses on the mystery that surrounds this story, the costumes (David Zinn) look entirely quotidian. Still, one would have hoped that the director, Moises Kaufman, had shed greater clarity on the human rubble that surrounds the “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
“The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”
is playing for a limited time at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Wednesdays and Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets call 212-307-4100, visit Ticketmaster.com, or go to the box office.