(Charles McNulty’s review appeared in the Los Angeles Times; Dany Margolies’s appeared in Back Stage—both on May 18. Thanks to Jimmy Maize on Twitter for letting us know about this play.)

LA TIMES: Review:  Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Two U.S. soldiers out of their depths in war-torn Baghdad, an Iraqi topiary artist-turned-translator for the coalition forces, the ghost of Uday Hussein (toting the decapitated head of his brother Qusay), a teenage prostitute wearing a disco head scarf, a friendly leper whose colony has been reduced to rubble, and a big cat that becomes a kind of moral philosopher after it's shot for biting the American hand that's trying to feed it.

No, it’s not your ordinary dramatis personae, but then Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which had its world premiere Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is no ordinary play. I’m tempted to call it the most original drama written so far about the Iraq war, but why sell the work short? The imagination behind it is way too thrillingly genre-busting to be confined within such a limiting category.

An ebullient synthesizer of world data, Joseph is not just alert to the fevered geopolitical madness surrounding us, he’s also endlessly inventive in finding bold theatrical metaphors to depict the extent of the depravity. “Bengal Tiger” marks the breakthrough of a major new playwriting talent. Attending the opening gave me a sense of what it must have been like to be in London when Caryl Churchill burst on the scene at the Royal Court in the 1970s. I’d like to find analogies closer to home, but it’s not easy to come up with an American comparison whose liberated stage vocabulary similarly blends acute social commentary with tragicomic mayhem.

Before delving into the play, let’s give some well-deserved credit to Moisés Kaufman, whose direction allows us to appreciate both the wonderful comic audacity and diffuse sensitivity of Joseph’s style. Kaufman, a playwright himself (his “33 Variations” received a Tony nomination for best play this season), was an inspired choice. And his vibrant staging, which features atmospheric sets of Middle Eastern hues and accents by Derek McLane, and a versatile ensemble cast precisely locate Joseph’s newfound theatrical ZIP Code . . .

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BACK STAGE: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Critics’ Pick)

The brain jolts to a start at the top of this world premiere and doesn't cease whirring, even after the blood-streaked actors accept their well-deserved ovations. Rajiv Joseph has penned a monumental work that muses on cruelty and nature, language and creativity, religion and remorse, and probably more that still hasn't sunk in.

You'll notice the play's title does not put the feline in the zoo but rather at the zoo. That's a first clue that language is dear to Joseph, proven as the play percolates onward. The tiger, the character with initially the most self-awareness, bemoans his brutal temperament. If he's hungry, he'll kill. But as the world will have it, he is in turn killed—by an equally alien American soldier who, with a buddy he presumes he knows well, guards the beast in an environment none of them can call home. Meanwhile, an Iraqi translator named Musa ponders the vagaries of the English language and how he, too, has been wrenched from his life as a creative and peaceful gardener and is now asking his countrymen to perform "unspeakable" acts. The tiger's ghost haunts the American soldier; Uday Hussein's ghost haunts Musa, who then is haunted by his sister's ghost. Several of the characters' hands are lost, whether to violence or hideous disease. In return, those characters floating in an afterlife—but, as they notice, not in heaven—are given intelligence and insight.

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(More info, Kirk Douglas Theatre)




(Moises Kaufman’s writing is represented in One On One:  The Best Men’s Monologues for the 21st Century out now from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.)

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