REVIEWED BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
After a triumphant premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City last year, Rajiv Joseph’s mesmerizing play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” has graduated to the Mark Taper Forum. All the original cast members, including Hrach Titizian, have returned for the new production, which opened on April 25 and plays through May 30.
“Bengal Tiger” unfolds in Iraq after the American invasion, but it is no ordinary war play. The unexpected shooting of a tiger by a soldier may serve as its springboard, but playwright Joseph’s script is a transcendent meditation on existence, death, and purgatory. In fact, it features as many dead characters as living ones, including Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, portrayed by Titizian.
Holding his brother’s decapitated head in a see-through plastic bag and telling a “knock, knock” joke, Uday makes an entrance that is, well, a knock-out. Titizian expertly plays him as both sinister and disturbingly funny, in keeping with the alternately visceral and darkly comic tones of Joseph’s poetic writing, which often soars. Titizian fuels the tour de force scene that closes the first act, setting up for the second act Joseph’s vision of Baghdad as a city roamed by ghosts who haunt the living but are themselves haunted.
Joseph has modified “Bengal Tiger” since its incarnation at the Kirk Douglas, but some of his revisions miss their intended mark. Passages in which characters struggle with questions about God’s existence, for instance, land with a heavy thud. The venue change turns out to be a bit of a liability as well, costing the production some of the immediacy that the relatively intimate Douglas space made possible but the Taper forbids.
Still, the play is gripping, and the production is well served by Moisés Kaufman, its gifted director, and a high-caliber cast. Arian Moayed delivers a compelling performance as Uday’s former gardener, particularly in his scenes with Titizian, while Kevin Tighe’s personification of the titular tiger proves indelible.
A recent Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Bengal Tiger” is a rare work of theater that is as provocative as it is entertaining – and should not be missed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Velvet Revolution.”