Bloodstains on the Chin: El Ogrito and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
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.)
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.
Jesús Castaños-Chima directs the fable with focus and lucidity on Keith Mitchell’s set, which features burlap drapes that represent the trees beyond, and hues of green and rust that the Ogreling’s mother (Julieta Ortiz, in a beautifully impassioned and slightly neurotic performance) uses to protect her son from the color red. Mitchell’s set contains translucent panels that reveal projections, such as the boy’s schoolhouse with a red roof and trim. (Yes, school is always the beginning of trouble, the first window onto the world’s horrors.)
There’s none of the glib jokes pulled off by Shockheaded Peter’s adaptations of Grimm’s fairy tales — no laughing at sadism for the joke’s sake. There’s sadism galore on this stage, but the Ogreling’s struggle against it is an earnest one; director Castaños-Chima checks irony at the door. The boy must undergo three tests in order to overcome what appears to be his destiny. He must first spend 24 hours with a rooster. If the rooster crows in the morning, he has passed. He must then spend one week with a wolf. If no blood is shed, he has passed the second test. He must then spend one lunar cycle with a child. If the child survives, he is cured. (His father tried the same battery of tests, and failed.)
Much of the exposition is carried by the mother’s correspondences with the schoolteacher, read aloud, from whom we learn of the Ogreling’s behaviors in the outside world. The teacher’s concerns are expressed with tenderness in both the writing and the reading, and the entire experience is both sweet and deep.
This compact tale contains a story of addiction, of heredity versus free will, and of war and peace — arriving at the final question: Can we contain ourselves? This is what we must now ask individually and nationally, as the world grows smaller, and the aggressions from which we derived our prosperity no longer work, or not as well as they used to.
Provoked by an American guard named Tom (Glenn Davis), the Tiger in a cage in the Baghdad zoo lops off Tom’s hand and is swiftly shot by Tom’s partner, Kev (Brad Fleischer). This is a story of people, and creatures, who keep losing parts of themselves, and every image stands for something else. The tiger was shot with a gold revolver Tom pillaged from Uday Hussein’s palace — along with a gold toilet seat he hopes will be a source of financial security upon his return to the U.S.
The legend harkens to the folklore of Finian’s Rainbow, a musical that appeared on Broadway in 1948, after we’d been through a different war that defined, in different ways, who we are, and how we’re supposed to accrue our wealth. Finian came from Ireland to the foreign land of America, with a pot of gold stolen from the leprechauns, hoping to bury it near Fort Knox, because in America, buried gold reaps dividends. Finian too is haunted by ghosts — a shape-shifting leprechaun named Og follows him to the U.S. As in Tiger, the gold, and the gold rush, forge the center of woe.
Here, the tiger’s ghost lives on to haunt Kevin and drive him insane. The ghost of Uday Hussein (Harch Titizian) — shot by Tom — haunts Uday’s gardener (and the Americans’ reluctant translator), who is, himself haunted by the ghost of his sister (Sheila Vand), butchered by his employer.
And throughout the Magritte-like dreamscape wanders the ghost of that Tiger, now pondering the purpose of existence and original sin, as though being caged in war-torn Baghdad weren’t punishment enough for whatever crimes he committed as a Tiger, kidnapped and airlifted from Bengal.
Joseph’s symbolism and magic carpet ride are quite magnificent, supported by Moisés Kaufman’s staging on Derek McLane’s set of blue-hued tile with a mosque archway, rimmed with gold. And, of course, those figurines from the garden wander in and out, like the growing population of ghosts.
The deranged GIs’ raids of an Iraqi home, and the soldiers’ screaming matches with their translator, overuse melodramatic tension strung out by redundant, overlapping dialogue. Also, some attempts at sitcom humor — such as the Tiger cursing, as though he grew up in the Bronx rather than Bengal, or pat jokes stemming from the American/Iraqi cultural divide — ostensibly exist to brighten the light in this circle of Hell. But their effect is to trivialize the scope of the dream, as though the director or the playwright doesn’t quite trust the innate beauty of the story.
EL OGRITO (THE OGRELING) | By SUZANNE LEBEAU | Presented by the 24th STREET THEATRE, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. | through June 21. (213) 745-6516
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO | By RAJIV JOSEPH | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | through June 7. (213) 628-2772