Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
by Rajiv Joseph
with Kevin Tight
Directed by Moises Kaufman
May 10-June 7, 2009
Kirk Douglas Theatre, Los Angeles
Can't help it; I'm a sucker for a catchy names having cut my teeth on the likes of Dad Poor Dad Mother's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad and Stop the World I Want to Get Off. Unfortunately, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo did not quite fulfill the promise I read into its title.
It is true, when the U.S. invaded Iraq one of the casualties of war was a Bengal Tiger who was shot by one of our troops when the tiger bit off the finger and mauled the arm of another soldier. Most of the other animals had escaped in the invasion, but the tiger remained caged and guarded by two American soldiers. Tigers are not to be trifled with, and zoo animals do not do so well in the middle of a war. Starving citizens of Berlin slaughtered many zoo animals at the end of the World War II, and The Zoo Keeper's Wife gives a vivid description of the fate of the animals in the Warsaw zoo during the war-- as well as an account of amazing bravery. But I digress. Rjiv Joseph used the facts of the tiger story as a jumping off point for a fantasy that aimed to be humorous as well as existentially provocative, with a little war is hell on people, and 'what are we doing in Baghdad anyway?' thrown in for good measure.
My disappointment was not in the tiger himself, played by a suitably gruff Kevin Tighe who looked like he was having a great time. His is a tiger who has been around a long time and has seen a lot of things. With sardonic strutting and pontification he conveys the essence of tiger all without any cute tiger costumes or imitation tiger movements. Live or dead, this is one tough, old, opinionated tiger.
Basically, the story is that two marines, one seasoned, one very naive and slow witted, are guarding the tiger's cage after many other of the zoo's animals have escaped. The seasoned marine tries to give the animal some of his ration and the tiger bites off his hand. Soldier number two, who is fondling Uday Hussein's gold plated revolver which his buddy liberated during the attack on Baghdad, is itching to pull the trigger. He kills the tiger who then becomes a ghost and who haunts the young marine driving him crazy , ultimately leading to his suicide and his own transformation into a ghost.
The translator for the marines is Musa, formerly Uday Hussein 's talented, animal topiary creating, gardener. Uday, of course, is dead making him a ghost free to haunt the gardener in the logic of Rajiv Joseph's make believe world. As for Musa, he has somehow taught himself perfectly grammatical English, stumbling only over idioms in some not very funny scenes. He is trying to survive and turns out to be willing to serve which ever master. He just wants to get along. There are more deaths and more ghosts, but that should give you a sense of the story.
Joseph uses the ghostly world to superficially explore some meaning of life issues. The tiger is peeved to find himself a presence as he always believed that when he was alive he was better than any other animal and when dead he would simply cease to be. Here he is stuck in some sort of limbo and having to deal with the idea that maybe there is a god. Kev, the naive soldier, becomes a very wise ghost whose transformation is not well explained, and really does not make sense. Uday's ghost never questions why he is there; he simply persists in his sadistic narcissism. Some torturers never die; they never even fade away. Musa was destroyed by Uday's rape of his sister; as a ghost Uday, the torturer, just continues.
By basing his story on an obscure, almost irrelevant, incident, Joseph's goal was to create an apolitical play about Iraq, a Herculean task, which unfortunately, I think, falls short. It is impossible to watch without thinking of the implications of the war. Joseph had been awarded several grants for development, and the drama has been workshopped extensively around the country; the author was still rewriting and rearranging scenes in the week before its opening at the Kirk Douglas. The result, I fear, is more like a giraffe, a beast who has often been described as looking as though it been designed by a committee. Only the tiger lived up to the promise.