Entertainment » Theatre

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 24, 2012
Caged Fury: Rick Park stars as the ’Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,’ continuing through Nov. 17 at the BCA
Caged Fury: Rick Park stars as the ’Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,’ continuing through Nov. 17 at the BCA  (Source:Company One)

In 2004, a group of drunken American soldiers reportedly entered the Baghdad Zoo and killed a Bengal tiger in its cage. One of the soldiers had entered the cage, evidently thinking he would make nice with the big kitty; needless to say, his adventure didn't end well. He ended up with a bitten hand and mauled arm. The tiger ended up dead, shot by another soldier.

In its broad outlines, the story is one of outrageous idiocy and recklessness with overtones of arrogant ecological disregard. There are only a few thousand tigers left in the world; their numbers dwindle daily thanks to human encroachment on their territory.

How does one make a metaphysical comedy out of something like this? And yet, playwright Rajiv Joseph pulled it off with "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a 2009 opus that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Rick Park plays the role of the Tiger in Company One's production of Joseph's meditation on life, the afterlife, and the meaning (or lack of meaning) of it all. Pacing in his cage, guarded by two American soldiers who are nervous, naive, and plainly out of their element, Park's Tiger reflects on the stupidity of the zoo's other animals, especially a number of lions who fled into the city thinking they had been liberated, only to be shot down in short order. The Tiger wants nothing more than to be let be, but when one of the soldiers sticks his hand into the cage, his rage and hunger get the better of him, and the Tiger takes the kid's hand off. The other soldier promptly opens fire, and the Tiger enters the afterlife, his earthly crankiness intact.

Park's growling, glowering Tiger possesses a kind of crotchety, world-weary wisdom -- the wisdom, indeed, of curiosity and self-reflection. As the Tiger's ghost wanders around Baghdad, his musings drive the play's core questions: Where is God? What's he supposed to do now that his earthly life is over? Is there really a Right and a Wrong, immutable and definite?

The Tiger's killer is Kev (Michael Knowlton). A high-strung kid to begin with, Kev is driven to the verge of complete insanity when the Tiger's ghost starts haunting him. It's bad enough that the other soldiers think he's an imbecile for having gunned the animal down; the fact the his only friend, Tom (Ray Ramirez), has lost his hand and been sent home is even more demoralizing.

By the time Tom returns to Iraq with a new prosthetic hand, Kev is in the infirmary. Kev claims it's because he got hurt while on patrol; it's more likely that he's there for psychological reasons. Either way, Tom's concern is limited: He wants the gold-plated pistol he looted from Uday Hussein's palace, and he's sure that Kev took it.

Indeed, the golden gun is the very same weapon Kev used to shoot the Tiger. The gun has fallen into the hands of Musa (Michael Dwan Singh), a translator working with the American forces and a former gardener for Uday Hussein. When he trimmed Uday's shrubs, Musa was a master at creating topiary that looked like elephants and camels and other creatures; or, as the astonished Tiger puts it when he wanders into the garden, bushes made to look like animals (while the real animals are locked away in cages). Now, with the golden gun in his possession, Musa, too, is haunted -- not by the Tiger, but by the shade of Uday Hussein (Mason Sand), who is still as sadistic as he was during his tenure on Earth.

The chase is on for the golden gun, as well as for another valuable artifact looted from Uday's palace -- a solid gold toilet seat that Tom left in the care of a leper living in the desert. These inanely gilded objects may be laughable, but they are still worth a lot of money, and Tom would prefer to return to civilian life with a few coins in his pocket.

Human arrogance is only one of the play's subtextual concerns; Joseph returns time and again to how we ignore reality while creating thin simulacra that better suit our trivial sensibilities, always to our cost.

More pressing, however, are the eternal big questions that the play raises, then makes sport with. The Tiger worries that his career as a top predator has brought him bad karma; maybe he shouldn't have eaten those little kids who crossed his path that one time?

Other ghosts, both those who find their way to the stage and about whom we only hear (such as a troupe of monkeys who, in spectral form, run riot through the wreckage of the city) have different views of the same essential questions. Uday strolls around carrying the severed head of his brother; the afterlife is just as much an occasion for his cruel pranks as his bodily life was. Joseph asks the right questions, but he does so with a rueful half-smile: What do we do if it turns out that the comforting idea of divine justice is nothing more than a fiction? What if we end up wasting our one and only life in the physical realm because we've been so eager to believe that there will one day be pie for us in the sky?

Meantime, what do we do about the daily urges and urgencies of the flesh? Tom, deprived of his familiar right hand, is sexually stranded; he needs to engage the services of a puzzled Iraqi prostitute, much to the disgust of Musa, who has a hard time translating his request.

The flesh, the spirit, the hope for grand and illuminating design; there's no easy answer for this tangle of disconcerting concerns, but director Shawn Lacount keeps things simple and the play progresses nicely. Dalia al-Habieli's set is ornate, but no more than it needs to be; a gated wall serves as zoo cage, Baghdad residence, hospital room, and bombed-out village. If we live in a cage of our own delusions (or those of others), it might as well be as nicely constructed as this one.

"Bengal Tiger" is a sharp-edged but comic take on what it means to live in such cages, and what it means to escape their comforting confines.

"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" continues through Nov. 17 at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

Performance schedule: Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7:30; Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There will also be a Saturday 4:00 p.m. performance on Nov. 17.

Tickets cost $20 - $38 and can be purchased online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com or via phone at 617-933-8600. Tickets also available at the box office at the BCA or Boston University Theatre Box Office, at 264 Huntington Avenue.

Students with valid ID pay $15; Student Rush tickets cost $10.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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