If you’re looking for light fare that passes prettily before your eyes and is scarce given another thought, stay clear of the Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre. But if you want a play that will pierce your all-too-comfortable ideas about good guys, bad guys and never the twain shall meet, then head on over to see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, playing through May 30.
Directed by Robert Craig and written by Rajiv Joseph, the play was inspired by– but not modeled upon– 2003 news accounts of war-ravaged Baghdad in which zoo animals had been locked in their cages without food or water for who knows how long, while others had been set loose on the city or hunted by famished civilians. A literal rendering of that bizarre scenario would certainly make for high drama, but this Bengal tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a creature of a different sort.
Like Ishmael, the gorilla in Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel, Tiger (Noah Wagner) has the advantage of standing outside humanity so that he can objectively comment upon it. From the get-go, he’s a philosopher and only grows more so after he’s been shot dead. You see, he acted like any self-respecting tiger would and chomped off the hand of Tom (Lee Samuel Tanng), a US Marine who was taunting him with a Slim Jim.
Tom’s fellow Marine on zoo watch, Kev (Jeff Rolle Jr.), kills the tiger, not with his bare hands, of course, but more like a young man breaking plates at a state fair shooting gallery. The tiger is, after all, behind bars and no threat to anyone– unless you torment it with junk food, that is. No accounting for the facts, Kev persists in saying he saved Tom’s life even after Kev downs himself in a psych ward, put there because Tiger is haunting him.
The tiger is simultaneously haunting each one of us. He’s standing upright in torn, filthy pants and tunic, not played campy in a Tony the Tiger suit. He’s looking a little too much like those “enemy combatants” at Gitmo. Just like Kev keeps insisting, so our government does too– We’re keeping them locked up forever to save your lives. Even if this doesn’t register in your conscious mind, something within you knows that caging a man so far from his home– because this tiger is a man– without trial or recourse is analogous to snatching a creature of the jungle and putting it behind bars in an arid land. Interesting that one came from the desert and ended up in the tropics, while the other reversed the route.
Everyone seems to get brainier once they die, no exceptions: Tiger, Kev, even Uday (Angel Correa), one of Saddam’s sons who was done in by Marines-turned-marauders, or “teenage Ronald McDonalds who think they are the hot shit of 2003,” as Uday calls them. Carrying his brother’s bloody head and dressed like an ‘80s disco sleaze, Uday is one moment hilarious and even charming, the next second so utterly depraved, he makes your skin not just crawl but run for cover.
All the actors in Bengal Tiger are phenomenal, not only those who play Tiger, Kev, Tom and Uday. Translator and former topiary artist Musa (Bradley Roa II) conveys the inner torment of a man who despairs, “I always work for the wrong people. I always work for the tyrants.” And he’s not just referring to rapist-torturer Uday but to Tom, who demands he translate his desires to an Iraqi woman, played by Caitlyn Cappadona. Remember, Tom no longer has a right hand to do it himself. In the next scene, Cappadona shifts gears and is Musa’s innocent little sister. Anisa Ann Marie convincingly assumes the role of an Iraqi shrieking in fear and anger, as all of us have seen far too many times on our TV screens and iPads. Marie is the only cast member who knows Arabic, though with dramaturge Ahmed Baagil’s coaching, Correa and Roa II sound like native speakers. It takes talent to sustain rage in an unfamiliar tongue.
Duplicity, cruelty, greed, terror and horror await you at the Baghdad Zoo. But it is well worth the trip, provided you don’t merely stand outside the cages and taunt “the other” but turn your gaze inward. As Uday’s equal, Charles Manson, once said, “I’m the zoo looking at you.” Take wisdom where you find it, even if it’s from a psychopath.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues at the Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre through Saturday, May 30. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $24 for adults, $21 for seniors and $14 for students. Tickets may be purchased online at lbplayhouse.org or by calling (562) 494-1014. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St.