"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" Does Not Roar

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Richard Rodgers Theater
226 W. 46th St.
New York, N.Y.

The curtain on Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo rises and there is Robin Williams, long grey hair flowing, streaked beard covering much of his face, in a tiger cage at the Baghdad Zoo, a few days after the U.S. ‘victory’ in the Iraq War in 2003.  He is guarded by two nervous American soldiers, whose combined IQ cannot be in double figures, who argue about inane topics while guarding the tiger cage.

The audience applauds madly for the famous Williams.

The ‘tiger’ here, though, has lost its bite.  The play, by Rajiv Joseph, is based on the true story of a tiger in the Baghdad zoo biting off a soldier’s hand.  It is one of a half dozen soldier plays in New York this spring.  The playwright uses the tiger, ten thousand miles from home in a place he does not belong, to symbolize the American war in Iraq.  The soldiers represent the insanity of the military strategy and lack of real U.S. interest in the conflict.  The play is littered with the ghosts of dead Iraqis who represent the destruction of a country for who knows what reason in what Joseph calls his ‘ghost story.’

There is a lot of symbolism but not much of a play.  The trouble with the work is that the playwright constantly reminds the audience of his point, the uselessness of the war, and the idea that people are far more dangerous than tigers, which we all fear.  He has also written two plays, the tiger’s and the people’s, and they run side by side, but not together.  Joseph also has a play that is more of a workshop, split into numerous scenes that never meld together.  So while you can admire the fine acting and the each individual scene, the overall play is a bit flat.

The story opens with Williams, as the tiger, giving a very funny blow-by-blow description of the eight lions who escaped the zoo when an American rocket blew out their cage.  He says that the head lion was named Leo and joked that all lions are named Leo.  The lions, being dumb, ran around Baghdad until they were shot.  The tiger, Williams says, might be safer inside his cage.

Then, angry at his two guards, he bites the arm off of one.  The other shoots the tiger dead.  The tiger walks out of the cage as a ghost and then haunts the rest of the play.

The action then shifts to an office where an Iraqi hired as a translator by the U.S. Army is trying to figure out why an American “knock knock” joke has to end with “Operation Iraqi Freedom, bitch,” and not just “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  One of the guards from the zoo sets him straight.

That action then shifts to a home broken into by screaming U.S. soldiers, who point rifles at an innocent family.  The soldiers are angry that the people cannot speak English.  Later, the tiger laments that he once killed two small children.  In another scene he remembers meeting a little girl with half her head blown off from American rockets in the street.  There are some scenes with Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son, who recalls the old days when his family had power.  The American soldier whose right hand was bitten off by the tiger wants to hire a prostitute to use just her right hand, making up for his, to have sex with him.  There are stories of all the dead people in Baghdad

One of the American guards stole the gold plated gun of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, and a gold toilet seat from his palace, when soldiers killed Uday and his brother, Qusay, whose severed head Uday carries around in plastic bag.  The bickering over the gold toilet seat replaces any talk of the fight for freedom in the streets of Baghdad between the two soldiers.

These are just some of the scenes in the play. The trouble is that the playwright never strings them together and asks the question to which so many people want an answer—why is America at war in Baghdad in the first place?  That question needs to be asked, and answered, but it is not.  Instead, we get endless little sketches that do not add up to a complete story.

Despite scalding language, the play is not riveting.  Historically, you do not learn much about the war, the history of the Husseins, the press and public view of the conflict or what happened to the city of Baghdad (the green zone?).

The irony is that the acting is superb.  Williams is hilarious as the now free tiger, but, in many scenes, he gets very serious, sometimes gut wrenchingly haunting, such as when he meets the girl with half a head.  The best actor in the play is Hrach Titizian, who plays the egomaniacal Uday Hussein.  He is a strutting, pompous and very, very dangerous man.  The tall, thin, muscular Hrach even looks just like Uday Hussein.  The two soldiers, Tom (played by Glenn Davis) and Kev (Brad Fleischer), are wonderful as stupid and opportunistic warriors in a far off and strange land.

Director Moises Kaufman does a fine job of moving people and action from scene to scene and back again, even though he works with a weak book.

Anybody who is a Robin Williams fan, and there are millions, will want to see the play. Those interested in a hard hitting war drama will be disappointed.

Note: at the end of the first act the curtain did not work and stagehands had to run out to lower it. The same holds true for the play. It did not work either.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Center Theater Group, Robyn Goodman, Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, others. Sets: Derek McLane, Costumes: David Zinn, Lighting: David Lander, Sound: Acme Sound Partners and Cricket Myers, Music: Kathryn Bostic.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu

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