The tiger of the title in Jajiv Joseph’s play (his Braodway debut) is embodied by Robin Williams. This isn’t figurative––he is a tiger. As far as plot points go, BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO is about the war in Iraq and is set in Baghdad in 2003. Two American soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis) are on guard at the zoo. When Tom provokes a caged tiger with a stick, the tiger instinctively bites off his hand. To save his friend, Kev shoots the tiger. The tiger instantly becomes a ghost and is doomed to wander around the war zone trying to figure out how life went so wrong that he was pulled out of his natural habitat to end up in Baghdad haunting humans. After rehabilitation, Tom returns to Baghdad, mainly because he wants to reclaim two souvenirs he left behind: a gold semiautomatic gun and a gold toilet seat taken when he killed Suddam Hussein’s son Uday. He now has the limitation of one hand and thinks the gold items will secure his future. Meanwhile, Kev has been going crazy because he keeps seeing the ghost of the talking tiger. Mixed up in this story is an Iraqi man, Musa (Arian Moayed), who is working for the US military as an interpreter. Turns out his sister was raped by Uday Hussein and now Uday haunts Musa, leading him toward a day when he will be compelled to kill Tom with his own golden gun. Revenge from the great beyond. There are many ghosts walking around Baghdad––the land of death. All of them become very intelligent about the world they once lived in, but all of them are perplexed that they can find no answers about the mysteries of life and death. The tiger has determined that God isn’t listening because not even in death does he answer prayers. Or perhaps, like in the land of Narnia, the tiger is God. He seems to be the only one hearing anyone’s prayers.
Although one tends to follow these fantastic plot points as a linear story, the world of Mr. Joseph’s play is really a place to explore the ramifications of war, religion and the clash of cultures. Will we humans ever understand each other or will we continue to obliterate each other until we are all ghosts wandering aimlessly? In the scheme of things, the tiger has little to do with the story, but this fantasy figure, who has no business being wrapped up in a war in Iraq, pokes and prods us into asking questions. Where is God? As intelligent as we are, are we basically not much different than the tiger––an animal? Even Musa, who allowed himself to kill another man, rejects Uday’s power hungry philosophy to proclaim that his is better than that––he is an artist who makes the world beautiful. Yet he has been driven to senseless killing under the conditions of desperate times. Mr. Joseph paints the war as senseless, misguided and sadly inevitable. Musa thinks that God actually has spoken and the war is His statement. The tiger finds this notion appalling, but if it’s true then God belongs in the cage like an animal.
Mr. Joseph raises plenty of questions, but he offers no possible answers, for it seems he just wants to get us thinking and talking. This aspect of the play will certainly be its legacy. The fact that it is set during current world strife matters very little, for this could be any war. War isn’t the real exploration here, but rather the play is an exploration of human behavior––what drives people to be their worst? Strangely, this grim topic has been handled in a way that makes for a lot of humor. This isn’t because of the presence of Robin Williams, though he certainly helps to lighten the experience. In fact, the play doesn’t depend on Robin Williams at all, for any star of the right age, comedian or otherwise, would do very well in it. But, if Mr. Williams can draw an audience to a play that might seem to be a downer, then all the better, for what the audience will find is not only an entertaining time at the theatre, but they will be provoked to step back and consider much more.
Moisés Kaufman has directed the play with a swift pace, though he is far less theatrical here then in past productions. This is strange when one considers how strong the fantasy element is in this work, but Mr. Kaufman has staged the play with simple economy. Derek McLane’s unit set has a middle-eastern look and serves the purpose for all scenes with simple additions and subtractions. His one big flourish is the larger than life animal shaped topiaries that decorate the zoo. These sculptures are in decay and silently represent the death of the best of man––his ability to make the world beautiful. However, the war is greatly diminishing what is beautiful. David Zinn’s costumes are straight forward, even with the tiger, who is dressed as a man in worn out clothes. David Lander’s lighting does most of the work at defining spaces and times of day. He does very little with enhancing the idea of the ghosts, though his overall design achieves a haunting mood. The cast, which includes a small ensemble doubling roles, are uniformly wonderful. Mr. Williams doesn’t necessarily put a stamp of definition on his role, but he is a kind of added benefit to what is an excellent play all by itself.