Not too long into Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, most of the characters pacing the stage are either dead, near death, or intimate enough with it to see ghosts. In an immediately post-Saddam Baghdad, violence and chaos are daily tangibles, and the dead are never truly gone. Between the deeds of a tyrant, two soldiers, a translator, and a tiger, playwright Rajiv Joseph weaves together potent and discomfiting threads in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama, produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company under the direction of Nathan Speckman.
CASUALTIES OF WAR The living evidence of terror and pain.
The agonies here are thick and myriad. Disturbingly simple-minded US Marine Kev (Jake Cote) wants pussy, but he also aches to have any kind of friend in fellow Marine Tom (Evan Dalzell). Tommy, however, is preoccupied with protecting his war spoils, a gold-plated semi-automatic and a gold toilet seat looted from Saddam's dead son Uday (Brent Askari). Tom's reluctant Arabic interpreter, Musa (Mark Rubin), once worked as a garden artist for Uday, whom he had every reason to loathe; now he's disgusted by the ignorant self-interest of his new American boss. Finally, the Tiger (Tootie Van Reenen) — only recently shipped to Baghdad and pretty pissed off about it, and shot by Kev in the very first scene — philosophizes remorsefully on his life as a killer and the God that made it so.
Cote's unsettling Kev has the most nuance and the best-dramatized arc in Bengal Tiger, a play whose characters are sometimes difficult to invest in, perhaps partly because of the allegorical flavor of the script. But Kev inspires a dramatically convincing ambivalence. Even early on, as he's creepily obsessed with shooting animals and "getting his dick wet," his deep need for human connection is a poignant source of sympathy. There are plenty of reasons to despise his colleague Tom, but it's harder to crack into this gold-looter's anguish. In Dalzell's hands, Tom's barking aggression nicely bespeaks cultural arrogance and a desperation underlying it; I'd like to see him brought closer to a more vulnerable breaking point.
Askari pulls out the stops in his inimitable, sarcasm-dripping fashion, portraying an eminently despicable Uday. His psychopathic, faux-jovial tormenting of Rubin's sympathetic, subtle Musa is dark and often quite graphic stuff, and I only wish that the script had employed a little more economy in presenting this relationship: the drawing out of even verbal torture certainly heightens the agony of the victim, but an audience can be presented with only so much sadistic imagery and whimpering before we begin to become desensitized.
As the Tiger, and as a "guy" tiger at that, Van Reenen is a bit of an odd choice. On Broadway, the role was played by Robin Williams, whose usual barely-contained kinetic energy was probably put to good use as a dangerously constrained cat. Van Reenen hits the Tiger's wry, languishing anomie compellingly, but could do more to evoke the beast's frustrated strength and sinews — perhaps in a blocking that better utilized the show's in-the-round staging to help dramatize the Tiger's and others' philosophical anguish.