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Theatre Review
by L. Records

“…Rajiv’s was some of the best writing I’ve seen…  He takes a world that is part Quentin Tarantino and part Gabriel Garcia Marquez and he makes it work.  His voice is really, really unique in American theatre.” – Moises Kaufman

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is now playing at the Mark Taper Forum after a successful world premiere at the Kirk Douglas in 2009.  How it is that I missed it the first time around, I am still scratching my head.  I was delighted to see it back, with a “step up” in venue; surely a good sign.  With playwright Rajiv Joseph (Pulitzer finalist for drama for this play!) and Moises Kaufman directing (Tony and Emmy nominated director and playwright), there would be no excuse to miss this again.

This play has an unusual style and approach…  it doesn’t have one strong linear storyline to follow, but it isn’t exactly a series of vignettes.  Despite the title, I would say it isn’t a war play (although others have described it as such), but more accurately, “war inspired”.  It’s really an experience the audience has with a handful of intriguing characters, in various stages of life (meaning while alive, dying, dead and in the afterlife).  We follow the individual character’s struggle to find the meaning of life, as well as the contemplation of its futility.  It’s real.  It’s surreal.  It’s violent, vulgar, gentle and funny.  You will chuckle throughout… because you are uncomfortable, because you identify, because its dark humor is so well done.  How is it possible for one show to be all these things?  I am still asking myself the same question many, many days later.

The show opens at the abandoned Baghdad Zoo with two young soldiers.  There is Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis).  One of these boys is profoundly immature and scared, while the other whom is seemingly more confident and savvy we later find is just as fearful.  The solution to (the slightly more “together”) Tom’s fear is greed, which inevitably becomes his downfall.  These two are in charge of guarding a Tiger (Kevin Tighe… yes, played by a man) who seems to be perpetually disgruntled as he profanely laments how his violent nature has landed him in his less than desirable circumstances.  It doesn’t take long for the grumpy and hungry Tiger to bite off Tom’s hand as he teasingly wags a Slim Jim in the cage.  Kev shoots the tiger immediately and the Tiger becomes the first of many characters to contemplate the meaning of life in their death.  In this state of contemplation, there is no trip to heaven, but instead the deceased characters are gifted a wisdom and insight they did not possess in life, while they wander the land.  There are additional equally intriguing characters.  There is Musa (Arian Moayed), a former topiary garden artist for Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian), turned translator for the United States Military.  Musa is haunted by his former boss, Uday Hussein (usually while carrying the head of his brother in a plastic bag), who raped and killed his sister, Hadia (Sheila Vand) in the very garden in which he worked his artistry.  Overwhelmed?  There are obviously heavy subjects and themes offered for the audience to contemplate.  But I can say rather confidently that you will not be overwhelmed as an audience member.  Ah, part of the genius of the show.

This pretty remarkable show may be sprinkled with Quentin Tarantino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but there’s no denying Rajiv Joseph channeled Samuel Becket in his writing… with the desert, mental ward, topiary garden, and the abandoned zoo the backdrop of contemplation, instead of Godot’s barren land with a single tree.  When the lights fade to black, you are in for that kind of a theatrical experience with a Tarantino/Garcia twist.

I would be irresponsible if I didn’t mention the really incredible set (Derek McLane) that easily allowed audience to travel from place to place without distraction.  The lighting (David Lander) also brilliantly aided the storytelling in assuring the audience was “with” the characters in the story.  There was virtually no struggle to keep up, which can easily happen in a show that wanders from the linear norm.

The star of this show is the writing.  It is supported by great direction and strong acting… it’s the most exciting piece of theatre I have seen in a long, long time.  Don’t miss it.

Through May 30

$20 – $45

Mark Taper Forum

135 N. Grand Ave.  Los Angeles, CA  90012