Wednesday, November 2, 2022

"It's a black comedy, a grisly horror show, and a metaphysical ghost story."

                                -The Hollywood Reporter

The current production of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in it's last week at Crow's Theatre, and mounted by Modern Times Stage Company, bears a somewhat less grisly, horror filled, and metaphysical ghost story ambience than one might expect from this montage-like script. When read on your handy kindle reader, the 100 page play clips along at a breakneck/jigsaw-like pace with ample opportunity to imagine how a production might become precisely what the Hollywood reporter suggested in its early productions.

Modern Times Stage Company's version of this puzzle-like story of war and senseless suffering requires a more rapid-fire rhythm and a setting that evokes the macabre carnivalesque quality that the Baghdad Zoo seems to have had in its heyday. Even the topiary animals, major set 'character's' throughout the piece, are hung high above the heads of the audience and dimly lit. By the end we are able to laugh lightly, in a sad kind of recognition, at the absurdity of hedges and trees shaped like living creatures. But the dark comedy essential to the script barely shines through at crucial moments that lapse into somewhat bewildering shouting matches.

The performances are solid for the most part, with Kristen Thomson as a frequently wily often understated tiger - at times too much subtly and not enough wiliness. Ali Kazmi as Uday Hussein steals the scenes he enters into with the perfect mixture of brash, murderous authoritarianism, and a darkly comic edge to his immense bravado, sprinkled generously with a taste for brutality. He inhabits the stage with the wild abandon of a truly frightening, and shockingly confident character hell bent on validating his horrific choices.

                                l-r - Ali Kazmi as Uday Hussein, Ahmed Moneka as Musa

Although the other actors (Christopher Allen as Kev, Andrew Chown as Tom) do a skilful job at moving in and out of blurred living and ghost scenes, and playing the horror and the comedy as it comes, they do tend to respond with a kind of shouting that could have used a bit of moderation and/or vocal range in order to make their suffering a little less blustery and a little more pathos inflected. 

Ahmed Moneka's Musa is a convincing and powerful topiary artist-cum-war ravaged temporary zookeeper and assistant to roaming American soldiers, and yet his scenes with the soldiers tend to be overpowered by too much high-pitched vocal warfare. Mahsa Ershadifar as the Iraqi woman and the leper, and Sara Jaffri as Haida/Iraqi teenager give the ensemble a layered sense of the people affected in the bombings, and provide a fuller sense of the lives being led by women within a profoundly compromised environment. When an American soldier laments the loss of a limb, and asks the character of the leper woman "how long she's not had any hands", she replies simply in Arabic, and is translated by Musa when he exclaims -

Since she was fourteen.

She said they slowly just fell off.

middle- Kristen Thomas as the Tiger, Andrew Chown and Christopher Allen as the soldiers (Kev & Tom)

The format of the play matches, in a sense, the ways in which America and some of its allies barged in under very suspicious pretences on the heels of 9/11, dropped thousands of bombs, and destroyed the lives and surroundings of innocent people, including animals living at the Baghdad Zoo. The double horror of animals already 'imprisoned' in unnatural 
surroundings far from their original homes creates a connection to the military presence in Baghdad, and yet this connection is never present enough in a very darkened atmosphere and in the hands of a tiger that frequently captivates yet never quite captures the essence of its entanglement until the end. 


The second act is worth waiting for in this sombre, at times too serious production, as it manages to rise above the first act's at times sluggish yet noisy rhythms. This is where the script reaches its peak and embraces the full senselessness of war in an environment haunted by too many gods -

MUSA: Don't pray to God. Don't you pray to any god, you piece of shit man. No god is going to hear you. Not out here. Not anymore . . . no god is going to . . . no god is . . . 

The irreverence toward the presence of some godly power-cum-rationale comes to a climax by the end and allows the tiger to find their way and stake their claim upon a script and a land they can never feel fully comfortable within. By the end one has the sense of a very moving and frightening piece of theatre that somehow lost its way in a production that only finds a fraction of the immense absurdity and darkly comic images that solid gold toilet seats, terrified animals wandering the streets, and war-torn zoos once adorned by hedges, bushes, shrubs, and trees shaped like giraffes and elephants could evoke. Large backlit projections might have given the overall experience a more animated, layered tone. As it stands, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo finds itself confined within a frequently pleasing, yet off kilter cage that doesn't quite fit.

Director Rouvan Silogix captures a frequently poignant mixture of the absurd and the tragic in his version of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. When he speaks, in a program note of "comedy, especially when it undeniably erupts in our most human moments, and it's relation the to the Tiger's existential journey" his vision becomes a layered and empathetic way into a complex script. 

The Modern Times/Crows production gives us a look at this complicated play and the complex horror that inspired it, and despite lacking some of the tragicomic nuances needed, is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of theatre.


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