In the works for the past 5 years, The San Francisco Playhouse's rendition of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a tale of grand proportions with a touch of Shakespearean drama. Written by Rajiv Joseph, the Pulitzer Prize finalist delves into the otherworldly and absurd, with a bent towards the fantastical: Here, ghosts beget ghosts, and a golden toilet seat stands in as a holy grail in the middle of the desert.
Directed by Bill English, Bengal Tiger takes place during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the least likely of locales: the Baghdad Zoo. Two American Marines with little else to do but complain -- and boast -- about their time on active duty stand guard at the cage of a starving tiger (Will Marchetti). A hungry animal, two bored men: The trappings are all there. All the story needs is for someone to do something stupid.
Naturally, the events at large are triggered by boredom and a lapse in judgment. With little else to occupy him, one Marine -- a foolhardy Tom (Gabriel Marin) -- taunts the animal with a Slim Jim. Things pick up after that: His hand gets bitten off.
Playwright Joseph's world is one of great philosophical and metaphorical weight, and like the laws of science, in which every action has a reaction, his world has its own laws of justice, too, where every misdeed calls for punishment. The tiger gets shot, by way of Tom's gold-plated gun, one he looted during a raid of the Hussein family home.
Night raid goes crazy (Pomme Koch, Sarita Ocon, Kuros Charney and Craig Marker).
If that wasn't already a clue, the cast of characters is an unsavory one: There's Craig Marker's Kev, a dim-witted Marine armed with a dangerous sense of self-importance and duty. His ineptitude is tempered, in that he usually defers to the domineering Tom: greedy, threatening, and now owner of a bionic hand. Both characters share the stage with their interpreter, Musa, played to great effect by Kuros Charney -- a local Iraqi and former gardener who, with the pending withdrawal of American forces, once again foresees his loss of employment and is pushed to seek other avenues of self-determination. Naturally, things end violently.
But what of the tiger? Now dead, his ghost is stuck in limbo (though, forced to roam the streets of war-torn Baghdad, he might as well be in Hell). Death has a way of making one wax philosophical, and we're witness to the animal's inner struggle to grasp his life's meaning and worth. He grapples with the legacy and guilt of his very existence, where, he says, each meal was precipitated by a cruel act of preying upon the young, the sickly, and the weak. Why, he asks, would he be punished by a god that created a predator?
Tiger (Will Marchetti) talks to God.
The tiger walks not only the streets and gardens of the city, but also cycles through Kev's overactive imagination, haunting his memory and driving him to face -- and succumb to -- his guilt for killing it. Joseph's argument is clear: Here, when things die, they don't necessarily go away. Out of its cage, the tiger is not yet free, at least from the pull and memory of the life he's lived. Never having lived in one, neither is Kev.
While Bengal Tiger employs the American invasion of Iraq as the backdrop to the narrative, the invasion itself isn't exactly the focus of the play. The sweeping set-up of war, death, and ghosts are less an excuse for politicized commentary, but more accurately provide a particularly severe framework for Joseph's characters to further examine the contradictory nature of themselves, their guilt, and their imprisonment in a deprived, and raw, set of circumstances. Bengal Tiger is ultimately about the cages we find ourselves in -- ones solidified both in our mind and by the forces at large -- and the way we choose to remember. War, here, too, is its own prison, one among many.
It's not to say that there isn't any critique on war as an idea: Joseph lays bare the hypocrisy involved in being charged to protect civilians of a country you occupy, most bluntly when Kev yells, "We are here to help!" to a terrified couple facing the end of his military rifle. (It's not all that different from killing a tiger you're meant to guard.)
Hadia (Livia Demarchi) is taken into garden by Uday Hussein (Pommes Koch).
But while his characters contemplate how much responsibility they bear for their actions, they are, as Joseph points out, not very independent at all -- all created in some fashion either by their circumstances or their maker (whether it be God or the Marines). No one here is a full-fledged villain, except, perhaps, Saddam Hussein's son, Uday (played by a particularly convincing and frightening Pomme Koch). More alarming than his incessant stream of cruelty, though, is the terrors seemingly normal persons in extraordinary circumstances can inflict while on a fool's errands, unaware of how thoughtlessly they contribute to the larger forces of war. The search for a golden toilet seat and a gold-plated gun, both pilfered from Hussein's home during the raid, are the major instigators of death and loss in this play. By the end of the second act, they hold little importance to anyone.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs through November 16, 2013 at The San Francisco Playhouse. For tickets and information, visit sfplayhouse.org.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli.