Zoos tend to fare badly during wartime, with the plight of captive animals mirroring that of besieged populations. Diane Ackerman's beautiful book The Zoo Keeper's Wife tells the story of the Zabinskis, who ran a zoo in Warsaw that was devastated by German bombers: "The moaning of lions and yowling of tigers spiraled from the big cat house, where she knew cat mothers, crazy with fear, were grabbing their young by the scruff of the neck and pacing their cages, anxiously looking for a safe place to hide them. The elephants trumpeted wildly...and the rhesus monkeys, agitated beyond sanity, battled one another." Once the animals were dead, Antonina Zabinski hid many Jews from the Nazis in animal cages. After Gaza's tiny, dusty zoo was destroyed in 2008 by Israel's Operation Cast Lead, the zookeeper attempted to distract traumatized local children by painting white stripes on a donkey and passing it off as a zebra. And, of course, the Baghdad Zoo was almost entirely destroyed during the United States' invasion of Iraq, with animals escaping, being eaten or stolen, and many dying of starvation in their cages.
So you can see why a small news item about a tiger biting the hand of a soldier trying to feed it sparked Rajiv Joseph's imagination; the result was his brilliant Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. There are so many levels to the play, which the Edge Theatre Company is giving its regional premiere, and such a mix of clarity and evocative ambiguity in the way these levels are presented. Bengal Tiger talks about the ugliness and irrationality of war and the dividing lines between cultures — and also those between animal and human, life and death, compassion and cruelty. American soldiers rampage through a burning landscape they don't begin to understand; Iraqis struggle to survive. No one is purely good or purely evil, with one exception: Uday Hussain, Saddam's son, appears here as a strutting, heartless braggart. All of this gives rise to the ultimate question, the one that never becomes a cliché no matter how often it's repeated: Where is God in a world like this? And then comes the only possible answer: Nowhere.
The action begins as a couple of soldiers, Tom and Kev, guard the Tiger's cage. They're macho, nervous and ignorant. Tom boasts to Kev about the loot he's taken from Uday's gaudy palace — a golden gun and a golden toilet seat, both of which he hopes to sell. The Tiger paces hungrily, as panicky and on edge as the soldiers; when Tom tries to feed him, he bites off his hand. Kev responds with a volley of shots and the Tiger goes down. But the dead never stay dead in this world, and no violent act is ever really over.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Presented by Edge Theatre Company through September 29, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheatre.com.
The Tiger rises and speaks. He's cranky and narrow in his thinking, but as time passes, he begins to feel empathy and to ponder his place in the world as a predator forced into cruelty by his own nature. Literally haunted by the Tiger, Kev finds his mind beginning to go in the middle of his brutal interrogation of an Iraqi family. In death, like the Tiger, he transforms, slowly gaining in understanding. Then there's Musa, Tom's translator, haunted by another corpse: Uday himself, carrying the head of his brother Qusay in a bag and endlessly taunting Musa with the details of how he tortured and murdered Musa's young sister.
Paul A. Page gives the Tiger a restrained, shambling impotence that contrasts well with the creature's legendary fierceness. Sam Gilstrap's Musa is warm-spirited and his slow corruption mesmerizes. There are able performances by Yasmin Sweets as an Iraqi woman and Miranda Vargas as Hadia, and in his natty outfit and dark sunglasses, Alberto Ocampo's Uday is reminiscent of every cocky Latin American dictator you've ever seen on the news. Kevin Lowry's Kev is often moving, and Nathan Bock is purely electrifying as Tom, vulnerable and bullying, scary, inadvertently funny and not the least bit self-aware.
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Though it deals with issues of life and death, Bengal Tiger is oddly gentle in tone, and frequently very funny. Under Richard R. Cowden's direction, it engages your brain, mind and heart simultaneously, cooking up a mix of insights and questions you'll be exploring for some time to come.