Directed by Heidi Stillman
Produced by the Looking Glass Theater Company
Starring Atra Asdou, Kareem Bandealy, Walter Owen Briggs,
Amy J. Carle, Anish Jethmalani, JJ Phillips & Troy West
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a haunting reminder that the horrors of war never die.
In 1793, the French National Convention, spurred on by their defeat of an Austrian-Prussian invasion, declared that their armies would take up the banner of Revolution and liberate all the peoples of Europe. Outside of France, such idealistic hopes of “democracy promotion” abroad were met with incredulity, and with continental Europe teetering on the brink of all-out war, the English poet William Blake, penned his most infamous poem on the unbridled wrath of revolution
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
What are we to assume, asks Blake—given the tiger’s natural tendency toward cataclysmic destruction, amoral violence, and rage—about the nature of the God who made it? Blake did not give us an answer, nor has the question ever left us.
In fact, the United States’s most recent military occupation of Iraq—again, under the veiled pretenses of “democracy promotion”—has spurred playwright Rajiv Joseph to resurrect Blake’s question, though this time (and with great success) from the tiger’s point of view. Currently running at the Lookingglass Theater Company, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo tells the story of Tom and Kev, two US Marines who, after slaughtering a tiger at the newly “liberated” Baghdad Zoo, find themselves plunged into the ghost-ridden horrors of insurrectionary Iraq. As for the Tiger, his ghost is left to wander the burning city as a peripatetic philosopher, wondering aloud how a loving and merciful God might be the author of his own irredeemable nature. Yet the Tiger’s nature is mild in comparison to Uday Hussein, resurrected in Joseph’s play as a poltergeist sent back to torture his former gardener, Musa, now working as an Arabic translator for the American forces.
Dispensing with an overt critique of the American foreign policy establishment, BTBZ is about the faces on the ground and their baser instincts for blood, sex, power, and money that threaten to overwhelm them in the aftermath of anarchy. But what, the Tiger asks, might ultimately be said of God’s nature in the face of such wrath and violence? Atheism, in this case, would be the more comforting (if less convincing) position. The darker truth, as BTBZ only intimates, is that God is Himself a warrior—one who, on occasion, demands blood sacrifice.
Lookingglass has deviated from business as usual in producing an existing script. BTBZ premiered originally in California before making its Broadway debut in 2011. Nominated for a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize, BTBZ has an impressive pedigree. And now without merit. The play isn’t interested in rehashing old political wounds of a decade ago. Instead, like its ghosts, its interested in exploring the spectral remnants of decisions already made and actions already taken. Upon being shot from within his cage, the Tiger tells his captive audience that at the moment of death, we are afforded an opportunity to see ourselves as the world sees us. And that it’s never what we expected. Similarly, following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in December 2011, BTBZ presents us with that critical moment of looking back—of seeing ourselves perhaps as the world sees us. And no, it’s not what we had expected.
Still, BTBZ has its downsides. The humor, for example, surrounding the fast and furious-loving, pistol-brandishing, southern-drawling young Marine, Kev, edges dangerously at times toward the derisively easy—especially given the sympathetic complexities he gains in the play’s latter half. And the fact that BTBZ’s emotional levels run at a solid 10 throughout its two-hour playing time means that its penultimate moments are invariably anti-climatic, even dashed-off and hurried.
Nevertheless, Lookingglass’s production has much to be praised, putting their well-deserved talents for the spectacular and the image-heavy to good use. Scenic designer Daniel Ostling’s animal topiaries—whimsically suspended from the fly space—provide just the right touch of magic necessary to counterbalance BTBZ’s otherwise macabre realism. And Heidi Stillman’s direction follows up with an almost dream-like pacing, never sacrificing the play’s surrealist excursions to its forward-leaning narrative. And she’s equally successful in soliciting strong performances from the cast. Notable is Kareem Bandealy’s imposing turn as Uday Hussein, rendered all the more frightening by his immense charms and personal bravado. And Walter Owen Briggs and JJ Phillips are equally capable as the two US Marines, bringing the right amount of vulnerability to otherwise overly self-assured characters. Anish Jethmalani’s depiction of Musa—a man always on the wrong side of history—is profoundly moving, and Troy West’s take on the Tiger is aptly understated, preferring the wryly casual to the overwrought and forced.
To be sure, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will have little appeal to the politically strident. As far as BTBZ is concerned, the battles in Iraq have already been fought and lost. But as Udey Hussein warns us, just because a thing is dead, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely gone. In truth, the ghosts of war will continue to haunt the American imagination for many years to come. Or as William Blake put it, “the monsters of the Elements Lions or Tigers or Wolves…terrific men they seem to one another, laughing terrible among the banners. And when the revolution of their day of battles over, relapsing in dire torment, they return to forms of woe.”
Reviewed Saturday, February 9th, 2013.
Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
The Looking Glass Theater Company is located in the historic Water Tower Water Works at 821 N. Michigan Ave at Pearson Street. Tickets can be obtained through their box office at (312) 337-0665 or at their website. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/bengal-tiger-at-the-baghdad-zoo/6054/