Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Photo: Carol Rosegg

No one is happy in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, regardless of whether they are Iraqi or American, soldier or civilian, human or animal, alive or dead. The living are tormented by guilt, and ghosts, and their own morally questionable actions; the dead can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing other than roaming around town, pondering morality, and driving the living insane. Whether specter or living being, everyone wandering around Baghdad is a half-mad, restless soul.

Of course, the fact that no one is happy in Baghdad in 2003 makes sense, since, as we all know, war is hell. But then, in Rajiv Joseph’s interesting, engaging, and flawed play about Operation Iraqi Freedom, so is everything else: loss, acquisition; bondage, freedom; Western culture, Iraqi culture; life, death; religion, atheism; and—still with me?—heaven. Does heaven even exist, come to think of it? Is it so bound up with the notion of hell that one becomes the other? Is it possible that God—if there even is a God—is less a benevolent force than a vicious, uncaring, neglectful punk? If so, why do we attempt to understand ourselves and others? To be kind? To even pretend that we are anything but brutes?

This is meaty, compelling, absolutely enormous stuff to ponder, and the play demands a lot of its audience in asking it. The problem is not that Joseph offers no resolutions; it’s that his play doesn’t tangle deeply enough with any one of them, which leaves the spectator hanging, and curiously detached about it, to boot.
That’s not necessarily an excuse not to see Baghdad. For its shortcomings, I was impressed by many aspects of it: it is exceptionally well-acted, beautifully lit, gracefully directed and as deserving of an award for sound design as anything I’ve seen all year. Also, how many shows get to boast about the fact that audiences may come for Robin Williams, but end up staying for Uday Hussein?

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