Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Man With The Golden Gun

April 17, 2010

Hrach Titizian as Uday Hussein and Arian Moayed as Musa
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

With L.A. Opera in the throws of its great Ring cycle and accompanying festival and the L.A. Phil about to welcome Gustavo Dudamel back to the Walt Disney Concert Hall next week, it might be easy to forget other things that are going on around town. But there is a play at the Mark Taper Forum that should not be overlooked. Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo returned to L.A. this week after a run last spring at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. Joseph was recently robbed of a much deserved Pulitzer Prize by a myopic executive committee last week as reported by Charles McNulty. But you don’t have to make the same mistake they did, you can actually see the best new play of 2009 right here in town. Bengal Tiger has arrived at the Taper almost untouched from its earlier run with the same cast and under the masterful direction of Moisés Kaufman and it is just as affecting.

The play is many things – ghost story, war story, buddy picture, and gritty urban thriller. Joseph harnesses a magical realism in the first scene and doesn’t let go. The play revolves around two American soldiers stationed in Iraq in 2003 and some looted golden trophies from the fallen house of Hussein. One of the pair shoots a captive tiger in the Baghdad zoo after it bites off the hand of his buddy thereby creating the first of several ghostly narrators that haunt this war torn city. Soon, the platoon’s local Iraqi translator is drawn into the action when his own connection to a looted gold-plated pistol, formerly belonging to Uday Hussen who also appears in the play, comes back to haunt him. The cast is better than I remember. Kevin Tighe plays the narrating tiger ghost with a deadpan urgency. The two soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis), were steadier and less cartoonish than I remember from before. But the heart and soul of this play is the superb Arian Moayed as Musa the translator. He carries the weight of the world here, providing the conflicted moral center in a work filled with the philosophical musings of more than a few ghosts.

Bengal Tiger is by turns funny and profoundly disturbing. It is not necessarily a political play. It doesn’t spend time rehashing American arguments for or against going to war at the time. It’s a play that like many other great works of art asks the big questions: Why are we here? Where is God when we really need him? How can we continue to do what we do to one another? The real mark of Bengal Tiger’s success, though, is that it asks these questions in such a way that it doesn’t feel like you’ve heard them a million times before in similar contexts. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will continue at the Mark Taper Forum downtown until May 30. It’s worth seeing more than once.


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