Robin Williams Roars Onto Broadway: Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo Review
“Zoo is hell,” Robin Williams tells the audience as the title character of “Bengal Tiger at The Baghdad Zoo,” an extraordinary and unsettling play that marks Williams’ Broadway acting debut. The tiger’s observations are often whimsical: He rants about the stupidity of the lions, tells us that the polar bear committed suicide, complains about a “gang of teenage rhesus monkeys” who are “carrying on like morons.”
But Williams is doing more than comic shtick as the tiger, just as “Bengal Tiger” is far more than a vehicle for his talents. Williams is very much one member of a cast of seven, an ensemble effective in the service of playwright Rajiv Joseph’s startling imagination.
“Bengal Tiger” may do for Joseph what “The Zoo Story” did for Edward Albee, introduce us to a writer of singular vision who will wind up helping to reshape American theater. Like that Albee first play, Rajiv Joseph’s first play on Broadway is, despite its title, not really a zoo story. It is a story about war. It’s war (not zoo) that we normally think of as hell, but in “Bengal Tiger,” war is more like limbo; the play is also a ghost story.
If the world of “Bengal Tiger” is surreal, it is based on fact. The first scene dramatizes an actual news event that occurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003: A tiger in the Baghdad zoo bit the hand off of an American soldier; his buddy then shot the tiger dead. Joseph has the tiger addressing the audience in a cage that was bent but not broken from the bombings. Two soldiers guarding the zoo, Tom (Glenn Davis) and the younger, dumber Kev (Brad Fleischer) are oblivious, hearing his speech only as growls, and misunderstanding what he’s saying and what he wants.
The violence at the conclusion of that first scene is just the beginning, rather than the end, of their interaction. Each of the characters of the play, whether dead or alive, is haunted literally by another one of the characters, and haunted figuratively by guilt and self-doubt and questions about God or existence. All, Americans and Iraqis alike, suffer from the stresses of war. All have problems communicating with one another.
After Kev kills the tiger, he is sent on a search of an Iraqi household, accompanied by Musa (Arian Moayed), an Iraqi who works as an interpreter for the American G.I.’s.
The man of the household is kneeling, with a hood over his head. The woman is screaming in Arabic. Kev is yelling. Musa is in the middle. Suddenly, the tiger’s ghost appears to Kev and, already on edge, he loses it.
Musa, we eventually learn, was once a gardener. He created topiary art, bushes trimmed into animals as elaborate as the ones that Johnny Depp did as Edward Scissorhands. But the garden was owned by one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday, and Musa is haunted by Uday’s having preyed on his sister (Sheila Vand.) Uday (Hrach Titizian) taunts Musa, carrying the head of his brother Qusay in a plastic bag – both brothers killed by U.S. soldiers, including Tom.
A prostitute, a leper, a gold-plated gun and a gold toilet seat all figure in a story that is in turns wry, witty, weird, haunting and horrifying. “Bengal Tiger” presents nightmare scenarios that would not be out of place in the grimmest of folk tales; it provides thought-provoking metaphors for war in general and the Iraqi conflict in particular. But the play is also grounded in the reality of carefully-observed moments. “You speaka Englisha,” Kev says in frustration to the distraught Iraqi couple, as if adding an extra vowel will make them understand him. This is funny, and grim, and true-to-life.
Director Moises Kaufman, a theater-maker blessed with a golden touch both as writer and director (Gross Indecency, The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife, 33 Variations) has put together a production that brings the dead to life.
Derek McLane’s set design hints at the grand history of a country known as the cradle of civilization, while David Lander’s lighting design – harsh spotlights, background in dark shadows – helps emphasize how that civilization has been undermined. All the actors but Robin Williams have been with the play from its first production two years ago at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles; it is disconcerting that most of them had roles in the TV series “24,” but their stage credentials are solid, and their work here is riveting
Attention will be paid of course to Robin Williams, who gets the meaty role of a tiger’s ghost wandering through a bombed-out Baghdad pondering the mysteries of the universe. Williams is respectful of the text; there is none of his well-known comic improvising. He is not wearing a tiger outfit; just some vaguely Middle Eastern clothes. Yes, he is given some mordantly funny lines. But this is not Tony the Tiger, and definitely not Tigger. This is a foul-mouthed, resentful, impulsive, violent animal who becomes, as a ghost, guilt-ridden and nearly spiritual. “The fact is, tigers are atheists. All of us. Unabashed…..When an atheist suddenly finds himself walking around after death, he has got some serious re-evaluating to do.” Re-evaluating or not, ultimately, even a dead tiger is still a deadly tiger. “What if my very nature is in direct conflict with the moral code of the universe?”
Audience members may object to the ugly and inexplicable choices the characters often make; theatergoers may struggle to find one coherent meaning from all the metaphors at play. But whatever the reaction on exiting “Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo,” it is a reaction worth experiencing.
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo
At Richard Rodgers Theater
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Moises Kaufman
Scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Acme Sound Partners and Cricket S. Myers, music by Kathryn Bostin.
Cast: Robin Williams, Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer, Hrach Titizian, Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan, and Arian Moayed.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
Ticket prices: $74.75 – $134.75. Day-of Lottery: $27 cash.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is intended for ages 13 and older with parental guidance.
The play is scheduled to run through July 3, 2011.
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