Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Rajiv Joseph
Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City
(2011)

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo production photo

Two American marines guard the titular Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, one (Tom, played by Glenn Davis) telling the other (Kev, played by Brad Fleischer) about a gold-plated gun he stole during a raid on the home of Uday Hussein (later brought back to life by Hrach Titizian in a chilling but darkly comedic role). In a series of unexpected events, they shoot the Tiger they’re meant to protect. Instead of disappearing, however, the Tiger – played by Robin Williams in his Broadway debut - steps out of his body and looks back on himself – then proceeds to roam the streets of a bombed-out Baghdad, searching for meaning in his afterlife and witnessing the struggles of the humans around him.

Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the tangled chain of circumstances that knit the characters in Rajiv Joseph’s two-hour play together force the audience to question the connections that link both individual and societal cultures, and the violent events they inflict on one another. Like the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, the show gives us a glimpse of the extremely human costs of war – the psychological scars, the inhuman and inhumane acts that individuals perform when pressed to their limits, and the ways in which the dead never truly leave us.

Joseph imagines Baghdad as a city haunted by those who have died in the violent circumstances of war. In his first appearance to the young Marine who shot him, Williams’ Tiger enters as Fleischer’s Kev interrogates a frantic and outraged Iraqi family through the efforts of Musa (Arian Moayed), a translator protecting a secret from his past. The Tiger is visible only to Kev, and the scene brings to mind the appearance of Banqo’s ghost in Macbeth – Kev being driven slowly mad by the appearance of the animal he never meant to kill.

Although the connection is never explicitly drawn, the play implies that Uday’s gun forges a spiritual link between its bearer and the assassinated Iraqi prince. Each time a new character holds the gun, they are transfixed – as if a spirit is passed from one to the next through the gun. If this link is intentional, how is the audience to interpret and assign culpability for each murder that takes place? Is the individual to blame? Is Uday, or even God, ultimately responsible for the death and destruction taking place in Baghdad? And if so, as the Tiger asks, what crimes are these characters atoning for? In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Baghdad is painted as a purgatory for the dead while remaining a hell for the living.

Unfolding in both English and Arabic, the constant translations and retranslations among characters from different cultures can be frustrating. Descriptions of how to complete even the simplest tasks can stretch into paragraphs, and some of the translations are wholly unsatisfactory – and yet, this serves to reinforce the viewer’s understanding of the constant strain being placed on the soldiers, translators and civilians who are portrayed in Joseph’s play.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo lays out the horrific costs of war in very concrete terms– but also balances them against the brutal costs of living under a tyrant. Baghdad is in a state of complete disarray, soaked in blood – sometimes literally – but Joseph never makes the argument that things may have been better before the conflict. Relics of a previous way of life – the temples and topiary gardens of Baghdad, a leper colony in the desert – surround the characters completely, serving as constant reminders of what has been lost and what they have escaped. Of course, the present and prospective future of the characters is similarly bleak, and this balances against Joseph’s painting of death as a single moment of transition, rather than as an end. In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, the end of life is portrayed almost as a rite of passage, a coming-of-age that allows an individual to truly open their mind and begin asking questions that lead to a better understanding of the meaning of life.

Although the subject matter is dark and at times the actions on stage can be extremely uncomfortable to watch, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is an important piece of theater that portrays the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in a way that one rarely sees war portrayed in theater or film. In his Broadway debut, Williams brings a sense of reckless gravitas to the existential dilemma of the Tiger, setting the outer boundaries for the surreal elements of the play.

Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody