by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Shawn LaCount
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Boston) Rajiv Joseph’s play about the Iraq War is not so much a dark comedy as a sour one. Its humor is drawn from bitterness, the absurdity of invading a country in 2003 and dethroning its dictator without any real exit strategy. It’s bold not because it says anything not said before, but because the play picks fearlessly at a new, festering wound before it’s had time to heal.
The show begins at the very zoo that was much talked about when the invasion of Iraq began. The Tiger, Rick Park, is played without any cutesy costuming. He prowls the stage in the ragged clothes of a local man. His complaints as he and his fellow animals starve are interpreted as growls by the young, befuddled Marines, Kev (Michael Knowlton) and Tom (Ray Ramirez). Trapped in a foreign country with little education
and no tact, Kev and Tom soon find themselves overwhelmed. Their setbacks include the hungry tiger and the golden toilet seat of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday (Mason Sand).
Much more sympathetic is Musa (Michael Dwan Singh), an Arabic translator for the Americans. Forced into being at the beck and call of naive Marines like the foul- mouthed Kev, Musa is conflicted regarding the presence of the U.S. in his home country. The Hussein family may have lost power, but his circumstances don’t look like they will improve any time soon.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo doesn’t try to take sides. Kev and Tom can be stupid and impatient, but they’re going through their own difficulties. Musa is not nearly as saintly as he appears, his inspiration drawn from his sister, Haida (Hallie Friedman), a paragon of innocence and not much else. The Tiger, meanwhile, rambles on about his existential crisis as he wanders the bombed out city of Baghdad. Some time during the course of the play’s action, the living characters begins to converse with the dead.
If one goes to the show looking for a life-affirming message, one is liable to be disappointed. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is about the problems humans can’t solve and the answers that don’t come easily. Company One struggles to put the confusion of the Iraq War on stage, leaving the audience with more questions than when they came in to the theater. In a show about events that, in some ways, are still unfinished, I believe that’s a mark of its success.