Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is really an indie-film character study parading as a stage show. While the performances and the play itself are compelling, and while playwright Rajiv Joseph paints an interesting portrait of the psychology of war, this production suffers from playing in too big of a house, losing the intensity intimacy could have brought. (I suffered from sitting near a vent and being freezing for two hours. Not fun.)

In Joseph’s latest play, his first on Broadway, he delves into the minds of a handful of people affected by the war, in Baghdad circa 2003. We first meet the titular Tiger, played with zeal and skill by Robin Williams, in the Baghdad zoo. He is guarded by two American soldiers, Tom and Kev (Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer, respectively), and begins to tell us of the trials and tribulations of being locked up and of the (dis)order in the animal kingdom, thanks to some lions, all named Leo. As the play, directed by Mois├ęs Kaufman (The Laramie Project), goes on, most of the characters are haunted by a ghost. I won’t go into detail as to who haunts whom, so as to not give away surprises. Although, I can tell you that the Iraqi interpreter, Musa (Arian Moayed) is haunted by the ghost of Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian) after Musa comes to posses Uday’s gold gun.

Throughout the haunting, the characters, Tiger included, question their existence, asking, “why am I here” (or, as one ghost asks, “why am I still here?”), and trying to figure out god. They’re trying to reconcile this notion of “god” that so many people have with the atrocities on the ground. In one particularly potent moment, a ghost is recounting a conversation in which someone said, “I’m waiting for god to speak.” The other person says, “God spoke. This is what he said.” “This” being war; hegemony; despots; civil unrest; chaos.

As you might imagine from some of my previous reviews, I found these questions to be both interesting and thought provoking, something I like in my theatre. But, dear reader, the power was lost because Bengal Tiger is playing in the Richard Rodgers theatre, a rather large theatre, with 1356 seats. I really would have liked to have seen this in a small, intimate off-Broadway theatre, or even one of the smaller Broadway houses, like the Booth (772) or the Helen Hayes (587). (Though it has nearly 200 more seats that the Helen Hayes, the Booth feels smaller.) Then, as an audience member, I would have been very close to the action – maybe too close for comfort for some people, but this is a play that should make you uncomfortable. I’m having difficulty honing in on the substantive parts of the play and really analyzing it because I felt so removed. Shame, because based on what I was engaged in, there’s a lot going on here and a lot to be considered.

Despite the too-big house, I was able to discern that the actors are giving fresh performances. Moayed thoroughly impressed as Musa, the Iraqi interpreter. The character is haunted by his actions which led to his sister’s death and by the gross pull of revenge. He’s struggling to not be like his former oppressors. (He also has a funny exchange with Kev early on in the play; in the exchange, Musa is trying to learn English idioms, particularly the colloquial use of the word “bitch.”)

Most people who come to this play, well, most of the tourists, at least, are there to see Robin Williams play a tiger. And he does a very good job. Tiger is funny, sardonic and fiercely intelligent and curious – meaning that the actor playing him needs to be able to seamlessly traverse from patter to pathos, and Williams is one of the few actors I can think of that could believably pull off this feat. It’s not just that the Tiger is both funny and dramatic. It’s that he’s both…and a tiger! Sometimes the Tiger is flamboyant and Williams handles that without slipping into caricature. Sometimes the Tiger is furious and Williams handles that without slipping into melodrama. In his Broadway acting debut (he’s performed his stand up on Broadway before), Williams delivers an impassioned, thoroughly believable performance. I just wish I was closer for the delivery.

For more information or to purchase tickets to this limited run production, visit bengaltigeronbroadway.com. And visit Broadwayworld.com for a collection of production stills.

(Cast photos taken from bengaltigeronbroadway.com.)

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