Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thrilling -- Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo -- Review

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph is a deeply thought provoking play - now playing in New York.

It is the story of men, women and a tiger in 2003 after the US invasion of Baghdad. Some are alive, some are ghosts, and most of those alive are dead by the end of the play. Tiger, played by Robin Williams, is the first to die, and the last to speak. He is eerily still as he debates his nature and why he is a ghost. Each character develops once they are dead, increasing their realization and knowledge, but getting no closer to God or a reason for why they are still present.

Like the LA Times (who reviewed the earlier run in LA), I found Hrach Titizian's performance as Uday Hussein the most shocking and riveting. Funny, sleazy, profoundly violent. He comes onto the stage in an explosion of charisma, carrying his dead brother's head, and torments Musa (played brilliantly by Arian Moayed) who was Uday's gardener and is now a translator for the Americans. Every minute Hrach is on stage you cannot take your eyes off his intensity.

Arian Moayed as Musa (seated) and Hrach Titizian as Uday

The primary setting for the play is in a topiary garden, filled with now neglected large topiaries of a giraffe, an elephant, an eagle, a horse. Previously tended by Musa, the garden is now the site of the hauntings. As the characters question why and seek answers and God, the garden is a beautiful allegory for the seeking of meaning. You can imagine what a haven it was for Musa and his young sister (subsequently raped and killed by Uday) and why each of the ghosts ends up there in the dark.

All of the actors except Robin Williams had been with the previous production. Their timing and comfort in their roles is flawless and contributed a great deal to the intensity oozing from the stage. Robin was, of course, terrific but he did not seem connected to the other characters. Maybe this is intentional, maybe he needs more time with the actors who are clearly close.

When the curtain dropped on the first half I was shocked - I thought the actors had only been on stage for 20 minutes - but it was an hour. The second half flew by as fast. As the LA Times said "The sweep and boldness of vision, bringing together cultures, species and even the living and the dead, is thrilling...". It was truly thrilling to bathe in the play and the actor's craft.

Robin Williams with the author Rajiv Joseph

Glenn Davis (seated) and Brad Fleischer --
as the two American soldiers out of their depth in Bagdhad

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