“When an atheist finds himself walking around after death, he has some serious re-evaluating to do,” says the ghost of the Tiger (Rick Park) while musing on the nature of life and death and exploring the ruins of Baghdad. As the Tiger ambles in and out of the shells of fashionable town houses and public institutions he realizes that combat leaves behind more than just bodies and spent shell-casings: the souls of the dead also comprise the detritus of war. Such metaphysical themes are at the heart of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”––a show nominated for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize that is running at the Plaza Theatre through November 17––and Company One’s production of the show emphasizes these elements through the quality of some key cast members. The acting is sometimes sometimes spotty, but “Bengal Tiger” is driven along by Park’s standout performance that highlights the script’s nuances.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” follows veterans of the War in Iraq––both military and civilian––as they try to comprehend the meaning of events far larger than themselves. Each (living) character is haunted by the ghosts of their past: For example, the U.S. Marine Kev (Michael Knowlton) is forced to put up with the incessant philosophizing of the Tiger (Rick Park), an animal he shot after it bit off the hand of his buddy Tom (Ray Ramirez). Iraqi translator Musa (Michael Dwan Singh) is hounded by the spirit his old employer, the infamous Uday Hussein (Mason Sand). As each character is haunted by their own demons, they are forced to examine the meaning of life and the nature of redemption in the ruined city of Baghdad.
Park gives by far the best performance in the production. The show is for the most part framed by the Tiger’s spiritual and philosophical growth, and Park captures this transformation by adding depth to his character. Many performers would try to portray a role’s evolution—i.e. from atheist to spiritual believer—as linear. Instead, Park builds on top of the emotional foundation that his character already has without shedding the feelings that defined him in the first place. The Tiger starts out as an secular cynic, and he never really loses his cynicism, even as he begins to question his previous views on the nature of death. Some of the Tiger’s funniest, most cynical moments come during scenes when he is undergoing a philosophical transformation, like when he realizes that even something as common as lunch––which, as the Tiger admits during a monologue, does occasionally involve eating children––can have moral ramifications. This is a tricky transition to pull off, but through a combination of impeccable comedic timing and raw emotion Park makes it vivid and believable.
However, not all the acting is as solid as Park’s. Ramirez and Knowlton both struggle to capture the nuances that drive their respective characters. They are convincing during moments of great turmoil, but they have trouble showing how their characters moved from stability to inner conflict. For example, Ramirez’s final appearance at the end of the play is very well executed, but none of his proceeding scenes display the emotional growth that would make his demise truly shattering. Instead, he goes from calm and cool in the beginning to desperate and despondent at the end with very little change in the middle.
The set is sparse––not surprising given the confined space of the Plaza Theatre––and consists of a wrought-iron gate and a gunpowder blackened brick archway. The different settings were portrayed through the lighting design, and designer Jen Rock uses different lights at various intensities to capture the changing settings. This simple feature allows the production to effectively switch from the dingy interior of a house to the bright sunshine of the Arabian desert without any clunky set changes. The directing of the show is handled with the same light touch. Nothing about it is particularly showy, and the lack of technical frills allows the depth of the script to be fully explored.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is a phenomenal piece of modern drama, and it handles the intricacies of the Iraq war with a refreshing mix of humor and honesty. Company One’s production of the play for the most part succeeds in capturing this complexity, and while the cast sometimes only offers a superficial reading of the characters, the production’s best moments provide a beautifully executed examination of the moral and philosophical implications of destruction.
—Staff Writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at email@example.com.