Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 1, 2010
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    Review by Tulis McCall
    (1 Apr 2010)

    The idea of a talking tiger is a fine one. What is theatre for if not to blow boundaries to smithereens? A talking tiger is an especially fine one when paired with the image of Robin Williams as said tiger. If anyone can anthropomorphize a tiger, it is Williams.

    So imagine my sad surprise to discover that this is not a fine production in the remotest sense. It is so far from fine as to be disheartening. That is how I feel when I see a show that is so shocking that all I can do is say “How did this happen?” I feel physically wounded. Like someone ripped my heart out. Dis-heartened.

    This is the story of a Tiger (Robin Williams) who is shot and killed with a handgun made of gold when he bites the hand off a Marine (Glen Davis). The Tiger then joins the ranks of the walking dead among whom is Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian) and one of his torture victims, the younger sister (Sheila Vand) of the local Iraqi interpreter Musa (Arian Moayed). In this play the dead appear to the living. The Tiger visits the man who shot him. Uday visits the interpreter. The dead are not happy and the living are miserable. Such is life in war.

    So hats off to Rajiv Joseph for his choice of subject matter. I think it is the only play I have seen that deals with our never-declared-by-Congress war in Iraq. But that is the beginning and the end of what is good about this production.

    The characters in this play are numbing in their static depiction. The U.S. soldiers are unstable and irrational. The Iraqi interpreter is a broken man. The women are either virgin victims, lepers or shrieking wives defending their homes. The ghost of Saddam Hussein’s son is a tyrant. And then there is the Tiger, at first caged, angry and hungry, then a ghost himself lost in the landscape of a city he hates, wondering why he is not allowed to leave it.

    And PS, everyone yells. EVERYONE. They yell as if they don’t know who they are and the only arrow they have left in their quiver is volume. The result is, while we are supposed to not like most of these characters, it is the actors we end up not liking. I kept wondering how long Brad Fleischer's vocal chords would hold out. Robin Williams doesn’t yell because he knows how to speak on a stage. What he does do, however, is puzzling. He walks in a kind of daze, a little hesitant and glassy-eyed. He looks uncomfortable up until his last moment when he focuses like a heat seeking missile.

    A literal reason for all the noise might be that the physical action is so wanting. The blocking is either dull or illogical. One man has to upend a table and make it look like he fell against it – an impossible task. Another character has to focus when he dons his gear but instead ends up behaving as if he were imitating a mentally deficient person. And then there is the Tiger, whose only action is to wander, except when he has a monologue down stage center.

    As to the story line, there is a just a thread. A handgun gun made of gold, confiscated from the Hussein compound, is an object of desire and brings disaster to anyone who touches it. And there is a topiary garden that is a refuge/reminder for all who see it. A reminder of beauty and excess – it being a garden created by a dictator in a desert – and a reminder of war's arbitrary victims.

    The yelling, vague action and unimaginative blocking combine to snuff the life out of this play. Either Moisés Kaufman didn’t see what was happening, or none of the actors responded to his attempts to breathe life into this play. Either way, he touched the ball last and is responsible for the fumble, which, in this case is not just one dropped ball, it is a bucket load.

    The show will probably run for quite awhile because people are coming to see Robin Williams. They are coming to see him and have a laugh. So anxious are they to laugh that when Williams does not provide the laugh the audience will find it other places. They will make humor where none exists – such as the line where Hussein says he will torture the interpreter by pulling off his toenails and then watch him try to run away. This got a chuckle.

    When there is so much good writing out there – only because there is so much writing, and it is a law of averages – how this play, which misses the target by a mile and whose only precise and poignant moment is the very last, got produced is one of those magical mysteries of the theatre. But that the execution of this production fails in so many areas is a colossal shame- an astonishing, gigantic shame.

    And that moment at the end? The Tiger tells God that He owes us something more than this world we are living it. This world can not represent a God capable of anything. It is a world lacking in too much. When God does not answer the Tiger decides to eat. He sits, sniffs the air and waits for lunch to walk by. He looks out at the audience and studies us, thinking about which one of us looks to tastiest. It is a disturbing and riveting moment – just like the rest of the play was intended to be.

    What the popular press said...

    "Smart, savagely funny and visionary new work of American theater."
    Charles Isherwood for NY Times

    "The sheer theatricality of Joseph's work makes it worth celebrating."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News

    "Worse, the production by Moisés Kaufman fails to exploit the script's supernatural components -- it emphasizes the weaknesses in Joseph's writing without making the most of its strengths."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Haltingly powerful drama."
    Jeremy Gerald for Bloomberg

    "The plot becomes repetitive and predictable."
    David Sheward for Back Stage

    "The play is billed as a dark comedy, and there are laughs... this is one of the grimmest plays I've seen in a long time."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "How did this pretentious work get so far?"
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Composed with fine craft and intelligence by Rajiv Joseph, ..., an eloquent drama with a deep scope and fanciful ways."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "A provocative and hauntingly surrealistic play from a distinctive voice."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "A quite wonderful production that honors the terrible mystery of being human."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety