Bloodstains on the Chin: El Ogrito and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo 

Wednesday, May 20 2009

Cannibalism and the safe havens of gardens are in the air this year, prevalent symbols of brutality and refuge, as we try to fathom the consequences of what we’ve been doing in the world for the past decade. Suzanne Lebeau’s El Ogrito (The Ogreling) — at the 24th Street Theatre — is a fairy tale about a mother trying to protect her young son from the heredity and instinct of blood lust. His father, you see, was/is an ogre, or one who eats children. After going through six of his own daughters, he fled in order to give his infant son a chance. Dad hangs offstage in the forest, watching with admiration as his son struggles with hereditary, demonic passions to eat little animals and, eventually, little children, while his mother strives valiantly to ban the color red from the house and serve him vegetarian fare grown in the garden — in these plays, gardens always serve as an antidote to the horrors of who we are.

That garden shows up also in Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, being given its world premiere by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas. It’s a beautiful play but not a huge risk for CTG. They got a generous NEA grant to produce it, after it was developed by the Lark Play Development Center in New York. On the part of a CTG, it’s more a triumph of administration than creativity but a triumph nonetheless. Among the living and the ghosts populating Joseph’s dreamscape is a topiarist in 2002 Baghdad named Musa (Arian Moayed), though the occupying American soldiers inexplicably call him Habib. Musa works for Uday Hussein — yes, that would be one of Saddam’s notorious sons. On the palace grounds where Musa works, he has created large sculptures from trees — now tattered figurines of an elephant and a lion and giraffe, which show up in Derek McLane’s scenic design. The place seems to have a calming effect on the people who wander through.

(Howard Korders’ In the Garden, which was part of South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival this year, also features a garden as an emblem of refuge in American-occupied Iraq. The man who designed it is an American architect working on commission. His creation, taking 16 surreal years to complete, includes the intoxicating scent of lemon blossoms derived from the childhood memory of his Iraqi patron. That garden, like the garden in Bengal Tiger, is a place where time stands still, until it’s bombed by the U.S. forces.)

click to enlarge El Ogrito
  • El Ogrito

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That these gardens and the blood surrounding them should show up in all these plays is more than a coincidence. These are the images from ancient mythology, a collectively understood symbolism of the dualities of war and peace, which floats across these stages, as though in a dream. We’re summoning them now, obviously, because we need them in order to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Strikingly, El Ogrito and Bengal Tiger each have one almost identical scene. In El Ogrito, the child-beast of the title, played by the adult Gabriel Romeo with wide-eyed innocence tempered by paroxysms of blood lust, arrives home from the forest with bloodstains on his chin. In Bengal Tiger, the eponymous Tiger (Kevin Tighe) appears clutching the remains of a hare — also with bloodstains on his chin. This is not cruelty, he insists, it’s just lunch. El Ogrito, being a being human rather than beast, has considerably more difficulty with that concept. Both spit out vegetables with disgust.

To offer a sense of the transnational scale of what’s going on at the 24th Street Theater, El Ogrito is actually a Canadian play originally written in French and performed entirely in Spanish, with Cecelia Iris Fasola’s translation, while English-language supertitles (translated by Shelley Tepperman) keep non–Spanish speakers in the loop. The production is part of the theater’s Teatro Nuevo International Program, and is slated to tour Mexico and El Salvador after the completion of this local run. The paradoxical goal of this populist program is to connect the theater to its neighborhood with works that reach the broadest array of ethnicities and age groups without insulting the intelligence or sensibilities of any particular group. Such an ambition would seem quixotic, but this production hits the bull’s-eye of that target. On the Saturday afternoon I attended, seats were being added to accommodate the overflow crowd, which consisted of patrons aged 10 to 70, of every ethnicity L.A. has to offer. The theater served preshow homemade, complimentary tamales. And through the remarkably sophisticated 75-minute performance, there was no chair squeaking or other evidence of audiences fidgeting. This could have been due to the pastoral beauty of the garden imagery, but I rather suspect the audience was more struck by the tale of people who eat their children. There’s certainly something in that for everybody.

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