Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Theater review: Bengal Tiger at Theatre 3 illuminates humanity with rough grace
It is a violent, bizarre, and moving dark comedy.
DALLAS The ghost of a tiger wanders the streets of Baghdad, wondering if he is culpable for the killings he’s committed for the sake of food. A gardener who specializes in topiary is haunted by the ghosts of his dead sister and the megalomaniacal tyrant who raped her. A soldier searches for the golden gun and golden toilet seat he looted during the course of an assassination. A soldier who has lost his hand (to the tiger) pays a prostitute for manual gratification, to momentarily create the illusion that it’s still there. Such are but a few of the grotesque, satirical, wrenching, and often poetic images that inform Rajiv Joseph’s strange and strangely, intensely affecting black comedy: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
The set (designed by director Jeffrey Schmidt) is littered with broken television sets broadcasting footage from upheaval in Baghdad, beginning in the year 2003. In one corner are the vestiges of Musa’s shrubbery, carved to depict animals. In some ways the milieu suggests the twilight motifs of Chirico. Two soldiers, Tom and Kev, less friends than associates, are guarding a tiger after several lions have escaped. Without meaning to torment the creature, Tom strikes a nerve and the tiger gulps down his hand. Without hesitation, Tom shoots the tiger dead, and the show is set in motion. Musa earns extra money functioning as translator for Tom, the tiger’s ghost confronts Kev to the point of suicide, the tyrant Uday continues to posthumously, arrogantly harass Musa, as if attacking his sister (Hadia) wasn’t bad enough. Kev and the tiger both discover that death has improved their ability to reason and reflect exponentially. Sadly this brings little comfort.
There is something close to miraculous in the way that Joseph takes his bizarre, cartoony plot with its shtick and loopy imagery, and creates a desperately sad, sometimes cosmic exploration of the nature of God, violence, mankind, dignity, dying, hubris, and the substance of life lived. Almost none of the characters are remotely kind to one another, unless they want something. The best they can hope for is indifference. There’s a wry equanimity in the treatment of all those involved. The life of a sociopath, a child, a beast, a simpleton, they are given equal weight, both for good and ill. They feel abandoned (tortured, really) by a deity who seems detached at best, but loathe to bring their own buried spark of divinity to bear. Bengal Tiger raises so many questions, blending a kind of vaudevillian absurdity with grief and disappointment sharper than any scalpel. In the right hands, theatre can reawaken us to the urgent pleas of our lost humanity, and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo manages this with rough grace and mastery.
Pegasus News Content partner - Christopher Soden, Dallas GLBT Arts Examiner
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