Sunday, May 9, 2010

Theater Tonight

Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo is a play populated by ghosts. Fraught with the tensions of war, the first
killing occurs within moments of the play's opening. Kev kills the tiger he and his fellow soldier
Tommy have been charged with guarding when the tiger (played by a human actor wearing tattered
clothes) bites off Tommy's hand. Tommy lies in a pool of blood, and the Tiger dies center stage but continues to speak as a human, and lets us know that though dead, he is still here. Welcome to the spirit world created by playwright Rajiv Joseph--and a stage where the unseen becomes seen and the dead still suffer in a place that--to a former Catholic--seems like purgatory.

Nearly every scene produces a ghost. Kev is haunted by the tiger and the war, and kills himself by trying
to saw off his own hand. He comes back to haunt Tommy who has returned to Bagdad with a Robo-cop
prosthetic hand, pissed off that he didn't even get a purple heart. The translator with Tommy and Kev's unit is haunted too. Once a talented gardener who specialized in topiary, he created a fantastical garden at the palace of the Hussein boys. He is visited by two ghosts--his young sister who was tortured and killed by Uday Hussein--and by Uday himself. Uday appears carrying the head of his brother in a plastic bag--a sort of double haunting. Already dead himself, he looked for the body of his brother everywhere, he tells us, but all that turned up was the head. Now he is a ghost carting around the head of a dead man.

In this realm of death  and war the tiger is the play's philosopher, and he ponders all the big questions. Where is God? Why do so many horrific things happen? How can a tiger be expected to rise above his murderous nature when God created him as a tiger in the first place? There's nothing new in the questioning, but the very presence of a  talking tiger from Bengal out of his element in  wartime Bagdad, dead but still sentient, puts a fresh context around the questions. 

Pretty much everyone suffers from a sense of dislocation in the play. The soldiers are in a foreign land longing for pussy and cheeseburgers. The translator can no longer practice his art. The tiger's camouflaging stripes meant for the jungle are worthless in the desert. The Iraqi characters we meet are lost too. Their once familiar world has been rendered unrecognizable. Even the beautiful beasts sculpted by the gardner at the behest of Uday don't belong. Green vines left untended in a desert are certain to perish.

The gardener/translator, who survives the various doses of Bagdad mayhem that unfold in the course of this play, seemed to me to be the character I cared about the most. Practically everyone hurts someone in this play (whether the hurting was intentional or not) and is haunted because of it. Even in peacetime, it's impossible to get through this life without wreaking some havoc, but when we hurt someone we love, the suffering can be worse than death. It was the gardener himself who brought his dear sister into the Uday's sadist realm and lost her although her brutal demise was never his intention. He is so tortured that he can't see his way clear to pulling the trigger on Uday's looted golden revolver that has passed from Tommy's hands, to Kev's, and finally to his own. 

The idea that fascinated me most in this play is that death need not halt our personal development. The tiger strives to be less violent and even dabbles in vegetarianism. Boneheaded Kev learns to appreciate the depth of Middle Eastern culture and becomes fluent in its languages. Tommy clutches his golden spoils of war as he lays dying, but sees they won't do him much good after he's dead. It's only the evil Uday who doesn't change. With his brother's bloody head in his hands, he seems forever destined to walk the afterlife as the most heinous of villains.

The play did not have a satisfying ending in my opinion, nor did its various dynamic scenes hang together as a whole, but there was plenty of good writing nonetheless.


Elizabeth said...

I saw "39 Steps" last night downtown, and the folks I was with told me a little about this play. Sounds interesting -- and I'm happy to be reading about it on your blog!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Heaven, it is mysterious, it is awful to consider that we not only carry a future Ghost within us; but are, in very deed, Ghosts! ~Thomas Carlyle