By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Ghosts pile up in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened over the weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, having premiered just about a year ago at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City (which, like the Taper, is administered by the Center Theatre Group). Joseph's message may have been lifted from Hamlet, Macbeth or any number of nontheatrical source materials — that the dead don't simply fly away to heaven, or hell. They linger to haunt, wisps of what they were. Life may end, but the torment, never.
For all its darker purposes, there's something intrinsically optimistic about the central idea that can be inferred from Joseph's parade of ghosts, which in Joseph's Baghdad setting is usually a consequence of somebody being shot or blown up. If death has consequences, so too does life. And that's a far sight more uplifting than the notion that both are in vain. Death may be stupid, such as an innocent child being killed by a roadside bomb, but the effects of the many stupidities, and arrogance, and sadism, and greed — the qualities that permeate so many characters in this play — ripple through the city and its gardens. This isn't vengeance, or justice. It's a faint whiff of something polluted, which is carried on the wind, to serve as a kind of warning to prick the conscience.
Oh, yes, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a comedy — or aims to be. A poetical, political comedy. The eponymous Tiger (a pleasingly droll and gruff portrayal by Kevin Tighe, padding around in gray sweats with a shock of silver hair and matching beard) curses his fate. "Zoo is hell, ask any animal." He also ridicules the stupidity of lions — always named Leo — for their eagerness to parade around the city after a bomb has liberated them. It was a decision that led straight to their swift demise by machine-gun fire. Tiger chose to hang around the cage, and has lived to tell the tale. For a while, anyway.
Tiger has an appetite. He goes a bit crazy when he's hungry — what he calls a primordial impulse. Once he ate two children. "It wasn't cruel," he explains. "It was lunch."
And though such high-toned sitcom banter offers a reprieve from any sanctimonious artiness and self-importance, the glibness does wear thin. One of the Tiger's lines, referring to the ghost of that child blown up by a bomb — "She wasn't stupid, even if she did have only half a brain" — was met first with groans and then with hisses from the opening-night audience. Perhaps Joseph has been watching too much Jon Stewart for his play's own good.
With crackling dialogue laced with subtext, Bengal Tiger begins as the beast is being guarded by two American GIs, Tom and Kev (Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer), in 2003 Baghdad. When Tom sticks a piece of meat inside Tiger's cage, his entire hand winds up being severed by the beast's teeth. (How easy it is to lose a part of oneself.) Kev shoots the Tiger with a pure-gold handgun Tom looted during a raid of the Husseins' palace. That gun, and a gold toilet seat he pilfered during the same raid, hold the key to Tom's future back in the U.S., or so he believes. The problem is, it doesn't belong to him. It was once owned by Sadam Hussein's son Uday (Hrach Titizian), who also appears as a ghost, sometimes alongside the ghost of the now-slain Tiger. That gun, that gold, and the barbarism surrounding it, belong to Iraq, so believes Musa (Arian Moayed), a local topiary artist once hired by Uday to sculpt zoo animals out of greenery, and who now works as a translator for the Americans. Musa's sister (Sheila Vand) was seized by Uday and raped to death for his entertainment. How she screamed, Uday's ghost torments Musa. Such a noise from such a little thing.
The beauty of the play lies in how it unfolds with the structure of a novel. That structure is breathtaking in Act 1. There is no central character; each holds a telescope onto a metaphysical view of human viciousness, the collapse of any kind of civilized construct; the living are followed by echoes of the dead, so that sanity is a very, very precarious proposition. Focus shifts, scene by scene, from one character to the next, while literary images — a severed hand, a withering topiary garden of statues, a gun and a toilet seat made from gold — form a delicate binding. This structure reaches its pinnacle at the end of Act 1.
In Act 2, it begins to go in circles. The plot grinds forward — Tom's search for the gold objects, Kev's descent into madness, Musa's search for a purpose, Tiger's search for God. In this world, God is a fella who, if you brush up against Him, tells you to go fuck yourself because He really would just rather be left alone. Yet life and death still have consequences. It's called history. These grand ideas simmer from Joseph's impressionistic Chekhovian comedy, and end up circling rather than landing on a resolution, not so much a resolution of plot as one of a view. Chekhov's view settles in the spaces between his characters. Joseph's doesn't quite settle at all. It continues to float, like his ghosts, so that his visions of God and Iraq and what we've done there are more like whispers than a conviction — even the conviction of a feeling.