In the U.S., whether you want to call it repression or market forces, entertainment industry elites–with the power to draw attention to fundamental issues, such as, let’s say, wars that have gone on for a decade–have focused on safer bets, such as a $70 million dollar musical about a superhero hanging by a thread (this is despite successful precedents where a contemporary war was used as a major element in a play such as Hair or The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel).  What isn’t being recognized, though, is that, for many, Broadway may not even mean “musical or play with a track record”–elsewhere, its definition could be “that which has edge, that which has societal significance, or a marketplace which has the ability to influence popular opinion” (like when Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July helped describe gay men; like how Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf could inform us about the lives of African American women; like the ability of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to speak to the issue of AIDS.  

People who see theatre as mere spectacle, or who tell us it is irrelevant, aren’t understanding why Belarus Free Theatre, whose participants have been threatened by rape, beating, and arrest, is in exile; they aren’t comprehending why the artists in St. Petersburg’s ‘Voina’ have “declared war on triviality and injustice” and consequently have faced legal action and detention.  It’s why the most dangerous thing about Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre isn’t the fact that he plays a tiger or the fact that he really does deserve a Tony for his performance—it’s that his star power drags the subject of America’s wars in the Middle East onto the nation’s cultural radar at its highest theatrical level (where it belongs).  Like the ancient Greeks who created theatre as a response to war, we now have the opportunity to begin inspecting and evaluating Iraq in shared communal space, in the mainstream, in the open, artistically, for explanation, analysis, healing, just as the generals Aeschylus and  Sophocles would, just as is right, just as is needed.   

Watching the young people haunted by death in this play might induce the societal appraisal: if shooting a tiger, who has just attacked a soldier in an occupied Baghdad zoo, is a powerful enough action to put someone on suicide watch in a Broadway show, just think of what the psychological impact must be for real Americans in uniform watching real people being killed in real combat situations. What does it mean when soldiers are exposed to these deaths? What does it mean if they are exposed to them over the course of many years–and if they believe that they must continue to fight in endless wars to secure the economic welfare of their own families?  

Of course, Williams is acting through the distancing metaphor of his character, so audiences won’t have to see the horrors of slaughter on stage (whether he represents Iraq itself is for you to decide).  But the reality is that over 9,000 American lives have been lost in that country alone during the conflict.  Soldiers may face extreme guilt (as do Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis in the play), PTSD, and potential suicide (there have actually been more American suicides by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than there are those who have been killed in these wars).  They also make up a quarter of our homeless population when they return home. For all our humanitarian purpose, what are we doing to our society?

Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., in his book Odysseus in America, tells us, “I believe that nearly every veteran who returns to civilian life after a long time in combat has moments in which he is afraid he is losing his mind.  Let me be clear:  not everyone carries permanent psychological injuries from combat, but I believe that everyone who makes the transition from battle to home—especially if the transition is made quickly—fears for his sanity at some point.  This may only be when he awakens from a nightmare, or when he notices that he senses danger around every corner.”    

Rajiv Joseph’s play, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer, opens with virtuoso cross-cutting dialogue between two soldiers and Williams—you’ll love the tales of a group of lions who have escaped the zoo and are cruising the city and, later, stories about “a gang of teenage rhesus monkeys” on the loose.  It’s a formidable combination–Joseph delivers memorable, funny, sometimes gross lines and Williams handles them as if he’s doing standup, Existential standup of which Beckett would be proud: “I’m telling you, for the most part, I’m very shy! I like to sit back and wait for something to walk by so I can kill it and eat it. I’m a simple guy with simple tastes;” or, “What if my every meal has been an act of cruelty? What if my very nature is in direct conflict with the moral code of the universe? That would make me a fairly damned individual. After all, lunch usually consists of the weak, the small, the stupid, the young, the crippled.” Following an “and then there were none-like scenario,” the show moves from one war-related fatality to another, culminating in the need for an explanation from the Maker.  Actually, I felt the ending too verbal: when we hear Williams talk about his anger toward God–that God himself deserved to be in a cage–I wondered what kind of cage a tiger from the zoo would design for this entity he had so grown to hate?  I wanted to see that cage on the stage; that anger, that intensity, that hate in form—that this is where God belongs, this is where he should be forced to live.  I wondered what the playwright and the tiger would ask him to enter. Additionally, although Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo takes on the big issues:  God, life, death, and life after death–and it is interesting to listen to the philosophy–ultimately, I think it’s difficult to blame the extreme situations of Iraq on God. 

Williams’s timing and emphasis, however, are impeccable–but it always has been (he has spent multiple years doing USO tours for our troops stationed in Iraq, too) and you won’t be disappointed here (it’s also interesting to note that a shorter play, The Lion of Kabul by Colin Teevan, part of The Great Game: Afghanistan is also set in a zoo during our Mideast wars)—I wonder what the tiger would think of that? (since he doesn't like lions very much).  Kudos to Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer as the American soldiers; Arian Moayed is excellent as the Iraqi translator for the Americans (an artist and gardener, also)—Hrach Titizian is offbeat and nasty as Saddam Hussein’s son, the owner of a solid gold gun and toilet seat. The women’s roles (they’re played by Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan, and Hend Ayoub) are somewhat small; these characters are largely victims of sex or disease.  Their Iraq is a place where everybody loses (in spite of the importance of this play, I wouldn’t take someone too young to see it—there’s sexual content, language, and violence).

The accomplished direction is by Moises Kaufman.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman

Visit the official Web site for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo: http://www.bengaltigeronbroadway.com/cast.html

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