Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph – Los Angeles Theater Review
MAN AND SUPERBEAST
by Harvey Perr
published May 12, 2010
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater
through May 30
Rajiv Joseph can write. Language pours out of him. And in Bengal Tiger at the
Baghdad Zoo, language is a rush. One minute, he is spiritually ferocious. The next, he is intellectually adventurous. And then, he is
politically imaginative. And when he gets inside the head of an animal – the tiger of the title – he finds not only the snarling beast but
the tenderly humane man inside the beast. And he takes on all the weighty subjects of our time and, to tell the truth, of all time: war,
peace, life, death. In his world, the living and the dead meet in a dance of anxiety and fear and, sometimes, even in a kind of
reconciliation. Why, then, after one has left the theater and is attempting to make sense of it all, does it seem as if not very much of
what he says is particularly new or nuanced? Why, at its core, does it feel empty?
What he has created is a tonal landscape. He has breadth and scope. All of this makes him a playwright we must pay
attention to. But it is also true that, perhaps, he has tackled too much; that, in the end, he lacks depth and perspective, that he has
spit it all out – the anger, the rage, the frustration – without really making an emotional connection to the crazy things he comes up
with, without caring very much about the questions he raises. If he cared more, would the audience laugh so much at the horrors he
describes? The name of Quentin Tarantino pops up in the program. Maybe there’s too much Tarantino in his writing – maybe that’s what makes
the violence and the human indifference to the violence seem oddly funny – and maybe there’s not enough Bernard Shaw in his writing.
Perhaps it’s the time in which we live. Perhaps wit and insight have been replaced by the cosmic joke. Perhaps Rajiv Joseph gets it. And
perhaps I don’t. I’m willing to argue, however, that there are still things that are genuinely capable of terrifying us.
I know that a real tiger roaming the streets where I live would terrify me.
But Kevin Tighe, despite the fact that he is giving a rich and impressive award-worthy performance, is curmudgeonly and avuncular (while
doling out sage advice) rather than frightening. I know that Uday Hussein, whether or not he
was carrying around the severed head of his brother, would be someone I’d rather avoid. But, again, as terrifically played by Hrach
Titizian, Uday is one of those canny tricksters – a mean son-of-a-bitch – who charms and dazzles us as much as he scares us. In a play that
tries to define some sort of brutality – nay, bestiality – that we all live with, one can’t help but be dismayed by the amount of
ingratiation on display. Only Musa, in a wrenching portrayal by Arian Mosayed, really puts us to the test. In him, we see the artist, in the
midst of upheaval, turning from his art to wreak revenge for his sister’s rape and forcing us to recognize the true tragedy inherent in a
world gone so nuts that it keeps its artists from remaining true to their art.
Moisés Kaufman, who has directed some of the most powerful theater events
this reviewer has seen in the past decade, seems to be marking time here, without really getting to the beating heart of the drama, and,
though he is to be admired for keeping intact the entire original cast, he is defeated by the stridency of some key performers, particularly
the insistent hysteria of Brad Fleischer’s GI. Derek McLane’s set is simultaneously majestic and scruffy, as it should be, and he is aided
immeasurably by David Lander’s excellent lighting design.
But, finally, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo enters a danger zone
without going anywhere near the edge of the cliff. It leads us into dark corners, but, like
all bourgeois art, it pulls us back just at the moment when we are about to fall into the pit.
And because there is so much in Rajiv Joseph’s play to behold and so much to listen to, it is saddening to leave the theater with a “seen
that, heard that” feeling. You don’t mess with a Bengal tiger and expect him to be so benign.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Craig Schwartz