Saturday, January 19, 2013
Theater revew: Theatre Three’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo hits and misses
Unbalanced in its intent, it still delivers plenty of shock value and some great performances.
DALLAS It is 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq, immediately following the city’s American invasion. Chaos reigns supreme and nothing is, or ever will be, normal again. Saddam Hussein’s palace has been bombed and looted of all its golden finery, and his two sons are dead. American soldiers are ordered to control the situation and protect the citizens and streets at all cost. Two soldiers are given the duty of guarding the city zoo, and thus we come to the play’s title, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, currently being presented at Theatre Three.
The soldiers, Tom and Kev, are ordered to keep looters out and the remaining animals in, including one tiger. The animal, for this play, is a man pontificating on his tribulation of being left behind while so many other animals escaped, and for being so far from his homeland of India. In another part of the city, Musa, the former gardener of Hussein, has been made a translator to the Americans and finds both their actions and what has happened to his home repulsive. But Musa knows that he must assimilate to survive and constantly adjusts to stay one step ahead in his new world.
The play, by Pulitzer Prize winner Rajiv Joseph, is about as chaotic as the subject and time of which he writes. Surreal in nature, nonlinear in form, it jumps sporadically through different scenes held together only by the slenderest of threads. None of the characters are where they are supposed to be – which is probably intentional as the people of Baghdad must have felt the same way during this most horrific period of their lives. But it makes it all the more difficult to find a connection to any of the play’s characters when they are so disconnected themselves. These people are all entrapped – in their own country, in a cage, by war, by deployment in a foreign land, and even in death. Many of them are no longer on this earthly plain, further removing the audience from them.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is an extremely intelligently written work -– full of challenging and disturbing scenes of the repercussions of war. Not actual warfare but the smaller, moment to moment incidents that forever change a person, a place, a community, a culture. No one who has not actually been in the business of war can ever know the lasting effects of what that violent act produces. Joseph comes close in this play and the imagination of the director and the audience carries it on from there.
Symbolism runs rampant throughout the play and this production’s set design. Both directing and designing the playing area, Jeffrey Schmidt did not make it easy to understand his concept or even what we were looking at. Finding out later that his design is homage to Pablo Picasso after seeing his work first hand in NYC, Schmidt forced the audience to imagine a world gone completely cockeyed and flat. Sections of walls were oddly formed and tilted, metal pieces were tossed carelessly around and furniture took on new dimension. A table with one leg, chairs either outlined on the floor or painted as if squished flat, legs sprawled out, gave a certain Dali or Picasso-esque impression. From my sixth row perch, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I was looking at -– a ramped up mound was painted like an elephant gone squish. What I thought were stepping stones to the tiger exhibit were, as I learned later, actually wrapped shrouds of the dead. And then there were the eyes –- eyes everywhere, Hussein’s mural, eyes on the metal pieces and the table top and in the faces of the people on the floor –- dark, burnt faces with wide eyes and a grimace type of grin. They reminded me of the skulls found in Cambodia’s Killing Fields, another horrific form of stepping stones.
But nestled amongst all the surrealism were objects that instantaneously made clear their intent – the use of televisions, flat screen and tube, placed around the set, on the walls and on platforms built into the audience seating. For the most part, we are spectators of war, the vast majority never having been in combat or even held a gun. Television is our technical and media connection to the conflicts and wars of the world – and only after it has been edited and revised to fit both the time slot and what we are sanctioned to witness. With video design by Amanda West, she and Schmidt showed the audience what we are normally allowed to view, bombs dropped from on high, annihilation of buildings, crowds cheering in the streets, and the damaged victims of war in hospital beds. Using television as the catalyst was a genius stroke and, in my opinion, the best part of the design.
Robert McVay’s lighting complemented the set design with sudden brightness and instant blackouts. The use of green lighting on the misshapen walls reflected the same sickly green on the TVs, possibly a symbol of the destroyed topiary gardens of the palace. His best use of lighting was the shaft of white light carpeted vertically across the stage, beckoning the characters to walk into it from offstage. Sound design and effects by John Flores were just that, effective, but also a bit questioning. Was recorded gunfire with actual weaponry onstage used for timing or to further remove the audience from reality, much like the televisions? The bombing effects were appropriately jarring and his choice of regional music was both soothing and eerily disjointed.
Bruce Richard Coleman’s costumes were straight forward in design –- sandy beige camouflage uniforms and gear for the soldiers, light and loose pants and tunics for the city’s men and the same or flowing gowns with long scarves to cover the women, both young and old. The tiger’s layers of turban, tunic, vest, pants and scarves were shed, scene by scene as it became more aware of itself, freeing itself from its former shackles, so to speak.
Without much of a plot, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo bombards the audience with a series of conversations the subject of which is about things that have already happened, most of them offstage. Characters, in turn, speak metaphorically of their situations, and while this probably makes for good reading, it did not contribute to our own understanding of their plight. And I doubt it aided the actors in grasping the playwright’s intention. Each actor, though, brought an essence to their character that clearly defined what such an unnatural event does to a person or animal.
I have a definitive dislike for the type of demeanor that comes from many a military person after time in service. The bravado, the false confidence, the discerning and demeaning way they interact with those outside their group makes my skin crawl. To that end, Parker Fitzgerald as Kev was perfect in his interpretation as the soldier who craves the action and the power. I so hated Kev that only in the character’s “awakening” was I able to see the actual person underneath the militia brain-washing. Such a monumental shift in character could be difficult for an actor but Fitzgerald handled the distinction admirably. On the other hand, Tom, played by Akron Watson, never really changed his stripes, so to speak, but kept on a cooler playing level than his combat companion. Tom had other ideas for when he got out and got home and no punk soldier was going to change his plans. But plans sometimes get away from you and Watson smoothly paced his acting, slowly building to his character’s own destruction. His scenes defined that subtle shift when the captor becomes the captive, and like the caged tiger, you didn’t even see it coming.
Uday Hussein was intentionally written as the pig of a human being he was, and Mike McFarland had the joyous but unenviable task of making that apparent. McFarland oozed his character’s overly nice and accommodating ways while the sewage seeped up from his depths. To portray as disgusting a person as Uday, you must believe that yours is the correct way to think and live, and I truly believed McFarland in his role. Both Krishna Smitha and Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso had multiple, smaller roles that gave insight on yet another way war can destroy a person or their soul. Smitha silently portrayed a woman whose kindness easily overshadowed her own affliction and Jasso’s juxtaposition of both an innocent young girl brutally treated and a prostitute for whom men paid her to do the same was mind opening.
The role of Tiger is unusual in the fact that you only get to know about him through his verbal diatribes and new found enlightenment. And don’t for one second think you’re going to witness some comic master in his element –- it’s not that kind of role and Cliff Stephens did not play it for laughs, although there were several comedic moments. As written, Tiger was, unfortunately, more of a moaner and less the freed animal renewing his bestial prowess. Though blocked to walk freely around the set’s city, Stephens continued to play Tiger on one level as if he was still caged.
And I just now realized that the gardener/translator Musa, as played by Blake Hackler, was the polar opposite of Tiger. A man working in the freedom and beauty of his gardens, he slowly and involuntarily transformed into a beast, one who used each and every situation in which he was placed to secure his own survival, exactly like a cat of the jungle, which his world had become. Musa was the Everyman of Baghdad, the true essence of what such destruction had done to his own people, his own life. In each of his scenes, Hackler had clear intent and his reactions were precise. He was alive and vibrant onstage and you could sense his character’s every thought. Musa’s declaration at the end of the play that “I am an artist!” was heart wrenching as you realized his only way to survive was to bury the artist and become like all the other animals he saw around him.
Theatre Three’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a somewhat flawed work, both in writing and production. Unbalanced maybe in its intent, it still delivers plenty of shock value, some great performances and a play that opens our eyes a bit to the underlying horrors to which we send our own.
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