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.
Moisés Kaufman stages a cast of unwavering strength. Tile mosaics and those topiary creatures punctuate Derek McLane's set, which feels more at home on the comparative openness of the Taper's thrust stage than when it was confined to the proscenium frame of the Douglas. This is one play that should never be in a cage.
The ghosts in Jon Tuttle's Holy Ghost — in a glorious production at Theatre of NOTE, directed by Michael Rothhaar, are the German suicides in an American POW camp in South Carolina, as World War II is ending. Among the issues here is how the Germans are not all Germans: One is Serbian (a heartbreaking and tender performance by Rick Steadman) and a couple are Jews who were swept into the German army and have hidden their identity for all too obvious reasons. Here's another surreal story, but this one is seen through the eyes of a main character, a newcomer to the scene, a U.S. Army officer named Bergen (Dan Wingard), who registered as a noncombatant due to his principles of nonviolence. He also happens to be Jewish, which goes down only a little better in South Carolina than it might in Nazi-occupied Berlin.
And so begins Tuttle's scintillating mash-up and spinning of stereotypes, which form a different but equally vicious brand of comedy from that in Joseph's play. Almost nobody is quite what they seem, or how they've been labeled — and Tuttle drives home that point with irresistible humor.
The German POWs are guarded by African-Americans (who have their own internal seethings), some of whom don't quite understand schwarze, the epithet being hurled at them. As though this is a competition for who is lowest on the totem pole.
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Acting as a public-information officer, Bergen tries to stage a play with the non–English-speaking Germans — a play about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. (Irony doesn't come any more blistering than this.) The Serbian with a perfectly executed, excruciatingly inept dialect is cast as Honest Abe. Before the big show, he makes a break for freedom — with fake beard glued on. The only English he knows is the lines from the stupid play, which he uses to bed some hayseed's daughter (Rebecca Sigl) before showing up in a redneck bar, and then chased by the private (Rich PierreLouis) who was supposed to be guarding him. What ensues is a kind of Huckleberry Finn morality play, with everything but the morals.
The ensemble is as terrific as the play, with standout performances by Doug Burch, Carl J. Johnson, and a gloriously patronizing portrayal by Brad C. Light as the German translator (an SS officer in disguise); Light doubles perfectly and metaphorically as the local sheriff.
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO | BY RAJIV JOSEPH | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through May 30 | (213) 628-2772
HOLY GHOST | By JON TUTTLE | Presented by THEATRE OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 30 | (323) 856-8611