Sounds of explosions and scattered gunfire ricochet around the Round House theater. The lights go down and up comes the unmistakable whirling, beating sound of a landing helicopter — louder and louder — as if it were going to land right there on the stage. The ravages of the Iraqi war, complete with chillingly realistic sights and sounds, are on the stage at Round House through Sept. 30 in a brilliantly conceived play by Rajiv Joseph — “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
This is a riveting evening of theatre like no other I have experienced in the last two years. And while the Round House’s production team has outdone itself in recreating the sights and sounds of the war, there is much, much more to this intriguing play. It is not an in-your-face anti-war polemic. Not by a long shot.
The entire play was inspired by a brief article the playwright read in The New York Times about the world-renowned Baghdad Zoo already in ruins with only a few remaining prizes being watched over by American soldiers. One of the soldiers has his hand bitten off while trying to feed a Bengal tiger. The soldier’s buddy kills the tiger. From little acorns, mighty oaks do grow.
I hesitate to even attempt a summation of the plot. It is both ingenious and almost entirely beside the point. Two American soldiers, the Iraqi gardener (Musa) who fashioned Uday Hussein’s topiary garden at the extravagant mansion where he lived, and Uday himself, spin around one another in life and as spirits in the afterlife in a tormented and, at times, hilarious pursuit of two highly prized possessions Uday’s gold plated gun and a gold plated toilet seat both stolen by one of the soldiers.
All the while, woven effortlessly into this crazed scenario, there is the existential spirit of the murdered Bengal Tiger, roaming the streets of Bagdad tormented by feelings of guilt and hungry, not for his next meal, but for answers to some of life’s most puzzling questions. At its heart, this play is a metaphysical inquiry, a cry of the heart to God: “Who am I? Who are you? What are you? Can what is happening here really be a part of your universe? Please speak to me!”
Eric Hissom is my first nomination for a Helen Hayes award for best actor this year. Using subtle mannerisms to hint at tigerisms and making full use of his vocal capabilities to alternately frighten and mournfully plead, Hissom succeeds in convincing us, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he IS a Bengal Tiger. Once having established himself as such, Hissom commands the stage easily and gracefully stealthily one might say. He searches his soul and pleads with the heavens to make some sense of his brutal nature. And in the end, he returns to who he really is: one of nature’s greatest and most deadly (and now badly endangered) predators.
The interplay between the Tiger’s ceaseless soul-searching and the almost farcical quest of the two soldiers twists and turns in surprising and wholly unexpected ways. We get a heavy dose of the sadistic monster, Uday Hussein, artfully brought to brutal reality by Pomme Koch, my second nomination for a Helen Hayes award. In his bizarrely charming portrayal, Koch is alternatively likeable and highly amusing and, at the drop of a hat, wholly and completely malevolent, the very quintessence of evil.
We despair with Musa the artistic gardener trapped into being an interpreter for the U.S. Army who is living with the anguish of having allowed his baby sister to fall into the rapacious hands of Uday. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh plays the role with a quiet dignity, winning our hearts as he carries his own on his sleeve.
The two soldiers, Tom and Kev, are a little over the top from time to time but I’m not so sure that isn’t exactly what Joseph intended when he wrote them as he did. Danny Gavigan and Felipe Cabezas walk the fine line between character and caricature without ever going completely over the wall. Cabezas, in particular, has some nice moments once he reaches the afterlife and leaves behind a manic childishness that occasionally grates on the nerves. Gavigan plays it straight up throughout and does so convincingly. Portraying unsympathetic characters is a major challenge. Gavigan and Cabezas do it well.
This play is so fascinating that I would venture back to see it a second and even a third time. There is a richness here, ironies abound as do metaphors begging to be explored further. Deeply touching moments (an elderly female Iraqi leper ministering compassionately to a brutish soldier dying a terrible death) interspersed with terribly funny interchanges which, far from being artificial, are funny precisely because they are authentically human. But finally and fully, there is the compelling reality of humanity at its worst and a beast at his best. It doesn’t get any better than that.
To Sept. 30. For tickets, visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.