Opening Nights: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., 325-5105, $15–$20. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Mon. Ends Oct. 7.

Existential angst is served up like all-you-can-eat flapjacks in WET’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s 2009 drama. There are riveting moments and a half-dozen fine actors performing at the top of their game, but what takes Joseph’s play 20 minutes to make clear, it also takes another two hours to conclude.

As Joseph sees him, God—or Allah, or whatever you choose to call him—is at best an arbitrary and capricious deity. More likely still is that he either doesn’t exist or must be a sadist who gets off watching his creations suffer like the flies boys torture for sport.

Mike Dooly is the chatty, anthropomorphic tiger (a role Robin Williams recently played on Broadway), a creature given to both savage amorality and guilt-wracked self-reflection. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he’s locked in his cage while his rivals the lions are accidentally set free in an explosion. Almost immediately the tiger’s hunger—which makes him do “stupid things”—gets the better of him, and he’s mortally wounded by one of the American guards.

That death sets off a chain reaction, as one character after another gets sucked into the black abyss of war. Among the Americans, Tom (Jonathan Crimeni) is maimed, and his patrol partner Kev (Ryan Higgins) loses his mind. The Iraqis fare no better. Uday Hussein (Ali el-Gasseir) appears as a ghost to torment his former gardener Musa (Erwin Galan), now forced to work as an interpreter for the infidels occupying his homeland. In due course, scores of Iraqis are tortured and traumatized in the maelstrom depicted onstage. Soon the play is populated with enough dead to open a debate with the living on the nature of war and whether there’s a point to this seemingly random carnage.

Plaudits to director Michael Place, whose casting ensures that the talkative tiger doesn’t steal every scene. Higgins and Crimeni make great tragicomic foils, while el-Gasseir and Galan grapple with the situational ethics of greed, corruption, and Islamic theology. With Tommer Peterson’s fine minimalist set and lighting designer Jessica Trundy’s sure hand at setting the mood, it’d seem that WET has a real winner here. Yet it’s Joseph who ultimately fails them and the audience. While his ideas are creative, particularly the crosstalk across the divide between the living and the dead, he belabors every point. Bengal Tiger seems not so much to resolve as grind to a halt. Everyone has a final say, and then each gets a chance to refute the other’s observation. It’s beyond tedious. By the end, I was wishing the tiger was real and breathing down Joseph’s neck—to get him to focus this beast of a play down to something more manageable.

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