Arian Moayed and Kevin Tighe
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009
With all the dropped productions this year between the three theaters that make up L.A.’s Center Theater Group, it’s reassuring to know that Artistic Director Michael Ritchie is making cuts with an eye to maintaining quality. Or at least that’s my conclusion after seeing the fantastic world premiere production of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
now on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. It’s easily the best new play CTG has produced in a good, long while and it is certainly the best to have premiered in the Douglas venue. (Though admittedly 2008’s, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson
does deserve an honorable mention.) Joseph’s play takes on big, contemporary topics with huge ambition, humor, and insight. The play concerns a group of characters, both living and ghosts, caught up in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Among these disparate souls haunting Baghdad are some you’d expect like two American soldiers and a former Iraqi gardener turned translator. Less expected are a tiger, a leper, and Uday Hussein. The play is not primarily about the rights and wrongs of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, nor is it some kind of simple investigation of American identity. Joseph has much bigger fish to fry than that.
The play grew from Joseph's interest in a story in the early days of the war in which a Bengal tiger from the Baghdad zoo was shot to death by an American soldier. Joseph transforms the tiger into a speaking part for an actor and re-imagines the incident in the play's opening. The tiger in indeed shot and killed after attacking another soldier in a moment of poor judgment for both. But the tiger's ghost lives on providing commentary and philosophical inquiry throughout the whole play, haunting his killer not as an act of vengence, but one of understanding. Soon the lines between the living and the dead progressively blur in a world of spontaneous violence. And while all the players must learn to deal (or not deal) with the past, there is much, much more to consider.
I know that Bengal Tiger
sounds rather intense and downbeat from this description. And it can be, but it’s also philosophical and very funny at times. The lion’s share of the play features two great performances. The first is from Kevin Tighe as the eponymous tiger. He's got many of the biggest laughs in a part that is neither cynical nor overly sentimental. The human whom he has the least contact with but perhaps gives the most insight into is Musa, played wonderfully by Arian Moayed. Musa provides translation services to the American GIs, but his own sins and those committed around him slowly escalate into his own moral crisis. Like the tiger, extreme events have caused him to question his nature in a complex way that goes beyond simple good and evil. Director and fellow playwright, Moises Kaufman is smart enough to let all of the ideas that Joseph has crammed into this play to unfurl in their own way. There are huge questions being asked here, but not in a way that is never heavy-handed. The large swath of magical realism that guides the play keeps things from getting too obvious.
Of course it’s not perfect. Some of the scenes, particularly those between the two GIs do run a bit longer than they should. Nor do all of the characters benefit from the same depth of development as Musa. Still, despite that “ripped from today’s headlines” feel, Bengal Tiger
works so well and so consistently, that it flies by. It’s a real winner and frankly a feather in the cap of CTG in this troubled financial time. It runs through June 7 in Culver City and comes very highly recommended.
Labels: LA Theater Reviews