Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (at the BCA Black Box through November 17) proves even more skin-crawling than most Halloween fare. Company One has fittingly opened it in late October in an all-around impressive production under Shawn LaCount's skilled direction. The 2008 play, inspired by a true story about two soldiers guarding a zoo in Baghdad during the early stages of the Iraq War, follows the vengeful ghost of a Bengal tiger through the city's war-torn streets.
Rick Park stars as the philosophical tiger, endowed, since his death, with the knowledge of all of life's mysteries, and feeling semi-remorseful about the children he enjoyed eating while alive. Park has grown his beard out in a style reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's scraggly later days, which adds spookiness to his supposed repentance. The tiger spends much of the play talking to a non-responsive God about why his spirit lingers and how he could be forgiven, since he was "created" to be a predator. How, indeed?
The only person who can hear the tiger's speechifying is Kev (Michael Knowlton), the soldier who shot down the beast after it ate the hand of another soldier, Tom (Raymond Ramirez). Kev sees the tiger's ghost while raiding an Iraqi home and spirals into a full-blown panic attack. The matriarch of the house (Salma Milia) angrily flings blankets at the suddenly ineffectual and wailing soldier, who then finds himself in a hospital bed, on suicide watch. No one else can see his tiger-ghost . . . but as the story progresses, the line between the ghostly and the corporeal blurs, and Joseph makes it clear that his play's ghosts are quite real.
The tiger is not the only unforgiveable predator walking through Baghdad; Mason Sand plays Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, whose real-life predilection for gold-plated weaponry earns him some King Midas comparisons here. His onetime gardener, Musa (Michael Dwan Singh), has become a translator for American soldiers since the death of his employer, but Musa cannot escape Uday's ghost — or the ghost of Musa's sister Hadia (Hallie Friedman), who died at Uday's hand.
No one can escape any ghost in this story; neither can the ghosts escape themselves, as they linger in Baghdad with no hope for liberation from their reflections. This particular ghost story shares more with Sartre's No Exit than with Shakespeare's Macbeth, leaving you with existential questions rather than a tidy triumph. But so, too, has America left ghosts and loose ends behind in Iraq, as Joseph's tale reminds us.
MADDY MYERS » MMYERS@PHX.COM
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO:: Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St, Boston :: Through November 17 :: $15-$38 :: 617.933.8600 or companyone.org