Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, has been widely acclaimed as the first great play about the Iraq War. In fact, Rajiv Joseph’s play, currently on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, accomplishes something bigger and more important.
While it is set in Baghdad not long after the 2003 American invasion, this utterly mesmerizing play is only peripherally about armed conflict. Instead, this brilliant young playwright uses the chaos of wartime Iraq as the perfect setting for a profound meditation on disquieting metaphysical questions.
What gives our lives, and deaths, meaning? Is there a way to reconcile our animal appetites with our nobler aspirations? Does God exist, and if so, how does He explain Himself? And how do we confused, hurt, and often angry mortals avoid the easy slide into evil?
If those timeless queries bring Samuel Beckett to mind, bingo: Joseph’s writing is reminiscent of the absurdist master, without feeling like an homage or copy. Like Beckett, he has a strong sense of play—Bengal Tiger is full of dark humor—and a knack for both resonant metaphors and vivid imagery. Unlike Beckett, whose plays are basically about stasis, he also provides a strong, suspenseful story.
Although the characters range from two American soldiers to the tiger of the title (who, after losing his life in the opening scene, regularly returns to the stage with philosophical monologues), the play is centered on Musa (Arian Moayed), an Iraqi working for the U.S. Army as a translator. He previously served as a gardener for Saddam Hussein’s psychopath son Uday, creating topiary animal figures out of the abundant foliage on a family estate.
Musa rightly considers himself an artist, but his canvas came at a heavy price: After Musa shows off his garden handiwork to his pretty sister, Uday claims the sister as his lover, and Musa is powerless to intervene. So he is happy to assist the Americans—at least until they start exhibiting their own brand of brutal recklessness.
When the ghost of the slain Uday appears (this play has more ghosts than the entire Shakespeare canon) and starts goading him to take revenge, Musa insists he is not a killer. But is he kidding himself? Is the tiger correct in insisting we are driven by our appetites, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise?
Moises Kaufman, the genius behind The Laramie Project and The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, beautifully stages this tricky material; in his hands, this idea-heavy play has no shortage of visceral jolts. (Be prepared for blood.) The ensemble cast is uniformly superb, as is Derek McLane’s sparse set design.
Bengal Tiger premiered last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. To its credit, the Center Theatre Group decided to remount this bold and challenging work at the larger Mark Taper Forum, where it continues through May 30. Anyone interested in meaty, provocative theater or curious to encounter an exciting new playwright should not hesitate to head south. Find out for yourself how much metaphorical resonance a gold-plated pistol can possess.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues daily except Mondays through May 30 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are $20 to $65. Information: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org.