Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Tiger Seeks Wisdom While War Rages On and Souls Wander Aimlessly

Robin Williams stars in 'Bengal Tiger'
Quick.  What pops into your head when I say the words “comedy” and “Robin Williams” in the same sentence? 

Wild, perhaps?   Inventive?  Unpredictable?  Hilarious?

Whatever your response, chances are your list does not include such terms as war, rape, death, or angst. 

Yet these are exactly what you get with the new play by Rajiv Joseph, Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo, now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and most definitely billed as a comedy starring Robin Williams. 

War is hell, or at least purgatory, for both the living and the dead who inhabit the world of Bengal Tiger, and the comedy that comes through is of the darkest existential kind.

Williams plays the title character—yes, the tiger—shot to death after he chomps off the hand of a U. S. soldier who has foolishly stuck it into the beast’s cage at the Baghdad Zoo sometime during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.   After death, the tiger becomes most philosophic, seeking to understand the nature of God and the universe, of sin and redemption:  “Why does God make predators and then get angry with us when we prey?” 

The tiger finds he is not alone in his quest for answers.  Soon he is surrounded by both the dead and the still-living souls whose lives have been upended by war.  These include two American soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer), the tiger killer, and Tom (Glenn Davis), he of the amputated hand. 

Both soldiers are young and inexperienced in war and in the ways of the world. Kev is rattled to the bone with a never-ending dread that consumes him, and he is haunted by the vision of the tiger he has shot until he can no longer live with it.  Tom is obsessed with smuggling out of the country a gold toilet seat he has taken from Saddam Hussein’s mansion, and imagines the prize will be his ticket to luckytown. 

As the play progresses, the parade of souls continues to grow.  Musa (Arian Moayed), a Turkish gardener who has been employed as a translator by the U. S. military, is haunted by the ghost of his sister, who was raped by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday (brilliantly and scarily portrayed by Hrach Titizian).  When we first see Uday, he too is dead and is carrying around the head of his decapitated brother. 

Laughing yet?

Being dead stops no one from interacting with the living as if in life.  Uday, in particular, is a very physical presence as he goads Musa into becoming a terrorist, while Musa wants nothing more than to get back to being a gardener.   Rounding out the cast are Necar Zadegan as a leper, and Sheila Vand as both a prostitute and as Musa’s dead sister. 

It should be noted that all of the cast, save for Robin Williams, are recreating their roles from the original production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.   Their experience with the play shows, and all of these performances are sharply drawn, under the polished direction of Mois├ęs Kaufman. 

At the preview performance I attended, Mr. Williams played it straight, seemingly wanting to fit in without disturbing the well-established flow.  There were a couple of moments in which he seemed poised to let loose his comic tongue, but then he pulled back. 

This kind of  existential dark comedy is difficult to pull off.  Williams has had a shot at it before, when he played Estragon opposite Steve Martin’s Vladimir in Waiting for Godot back in 1988.  But Rajiv Joseph--while an interesting playwright--is not Samuel Beckett, and Bengal Tiger--while an interesting play--is not Godot, so Mr. Williams will need to find his voice as the tiger on his own.  

It should be interesting to watch him grow into the role so as not to be seen as a being there solely on the basis of his box office draw.  It would help his cause, I believe, if the production were not billed as a comedy.  Word-of-mouth will make that abundantly clear, in an event.

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