By James Foritano
Boston, MA – Last weekend, I was at the Baghdad Zoo courtesy of Company One’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s drama, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”. It was a dark play, set as it was in the war-torn, 2003 Baghdad of “shock and awe.” But it was lighted with a humor that cast facets of color into the darkness while absorbing darkness into itself. This was a delicate balance, and it worked for me, except in rare moments.
Most of the focus of our hypnotic news coverage was not on the Baghdad Zoo and what happens when chaos blows apart the cages, releasing authentic beasts into the ‘bestiality’ of war, yet Rick Park’s mesmeric tiger owns the stage, both behind and in front of the bars of his cage.
Mr. Park plays an appropriately humble tiger that’s been demoted twice. Firstly, he shares the Baghdad Zoo with a pride of lions who, no argument, are the Kings of Beasts; secondly he ‘escapes’ from the zoo into a world where his ferocity plays a definite second fiddle to the ferocity of a high-tech war machine and it’s armored warriors.
Yes, Park’s tiger is a metaphor, even an allegory; what keeps him vital is a shamanic zest for inhabiting his ‘tigerness’ both body and, well, soul. His posture, ruminations, one-liners convinced me that if a tiger’s soul could be experienced by his distant human cousins it would look and feel something like this one: padding about, philosophizing, expostulating on Company One’s stage.
Not to take any credit from Park’s soul stirring performance, it must be noted that stagecraft and fine ensemble acting enliven the stripes he wears so convincingly.
Michael Henry James Knowlton and Raymond Ramirez, as, respectively, Kev and Tom, U.S. guards at the Baghdad Zoo, embody the personae of youthful warriors, the pride and lust of empire jittering through them so fiercely they can hardly keep their aim straight, never mind their fix on who they were before they became warriors.
Just about everything, including their own actions as well as their heavily scatological speech, cries out for interpretation. Why does Tom stick his arm into the mouth of Park’s Bengal tiger? How does Kev stretch the word ‘bitch’ as adjective, noun and verb to discover as well as cover over his every thought and action?
Enter Michael Dwan Singh as Musa, their Iraqi interpreter, or ‘Terp’. Everyone’s got to have a ‘Terp’ to untangle the language barrier — not to mention the cultural and personal barriers that bloom in both war and peace.
Michael’s ‘Musa’ has own demons, no surprise, which, though he struggles heroically to remain professional, turn tragically on his employers as well as on himself.
Moments both of enlightenment and willful illusion multiply in ‘Bengal Tiger’, even, maybe especially, after death, as Park’s ‘tiger’ is joined by a raft of questing souls — not least, Saddam Hussein’s horrific son Uday (Mason Sand) — struggling to achieve peace in a very un-peaceful world.
It’s difficult to fix on any ‘star’ in this beautifully crafted and acted drama; much easier to give oneself up as viewer/ participant to the sometimes harrowing, sometimes joyful vicissitudes of an exotic world we recognize, willy-nilly, as our own.
(The New England premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” continues through November 17 at Company One’s stage at the BCA Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston. For more information, call (617) 933-8600 or visit http://www.bostontheatrescene.com.)