‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ at Round House Theatre by David Friscic

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There are no easy answers in Rajiv Joseph’s terrific play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but there is a hell of a lot of interesting questions to ponder. Now being given a superlative mounting at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, this is a production that – like the ghosts of the dead in the play – will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

From the opening scene of two American servicemen guarding a decrepit Baghdad Zoo in war-torn Iraq to the appearance of the caustic tiger of the play’s title – through to the poignant scenes of the mutilated and the tortured, this is a play full of twists, turns and surprises that will truly catch you unaware. Playwright Joseph mixes the comic and the tragic with equal skill and the audience’s brain cells get a thorough workout. Metaphysical musings on life, death, and God are interspersed with visceral, jolting scenes of violence and the random mayhem that is indicative of the futility of all war.

Felipe Cabezas (Kev) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Musa). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Referring to a true news item of September 21, 2003 where a U.S. Soldier killed a tiger in a Baghdad Zoo, playwright Joseph takes this brief nugget of news and uses it as the mooring point from which to riff off on a fast succession of seemingly random tragi-comic scenes that are highly interrelated in the final analysis. Just as the Matisse painting in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is the touchstone from which a whirlwind of events unfolds, this Bengal tiger is the touchstone of Joseph’s play as he becomes the all-observant narrator of this sad yet very real and comic story.

The play unfolds with the magic realism of the great South American writers  – a bewitching topiary hovers over the decrepit remains of a mosque, hands are severed, ghosts of the dead appear and reappear, and an animal speaks. Playwright Joseph seems to be very interested in the juxtaposition of the rough vulgarity of war (the profanity used here is necessary and stronger than any David Mamet play) with the comic and the surreal. Director Jeremy Skidmore has all these themes held firmly in his tight hands – the pacing of the play proceeds from one divergent tone to another with an air of authority and innovative skill.

Eric Hissom (Tiger). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

It has been quite awhile since I have seen each member of a cast work together on the same high level to such a degree- – usually, there is one actor who is lacking in energy or an actor who may overact a bit. Eric Hissom’s Tiger is both ferociously angry and comically observant. Felipe Cabezas (Kev) and Danny Gavigan (Tom) – the American Serviceman of this tale- – are very natural and spontaneous in their interpretations; their acting choices always seem fresh and unstudied. Pomme Koch (Uday Hussein) is appropriately smarmy and malicious in his role. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Musa) is superlative  – his acting is all of a piece and his cries of anguish sear into one’s soul. As his character struggles for meaning in the insanity of war, the audience can feel his pain and his personal battle for redemption and self responsiblity amid the madness and chaos.

Rounding out the cast, Salma Shaw in the multiple roles of Hadia, Iraqi Teenager, and Nurse and Nadia Mahdi as the Iraqi Woman are very effective and striking.

The challenging text of this play calls out for superb technical support and the scenic design of Tony Cisek is more than up to the task. Cisek’s choices are so insightful that I do not want to give them away here. Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna effectively navigates the alternating shifts of tone with effective lighitng choices. The sound design and composition of Eric Shimelonis is particularly evocative from the sounds of helicopters flying over head to the calls to prayer to the sounds of birds tweeting in the topiary.

Not for the faint of heart, Round House Theatre’s production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is superior fare and the best all-around production I have ever seen at Round House. The cyclical anguish of all parties – living or dead – that have been touched by the insanities of war and the need for connection seems to be the overriding theme of a play that explores many, many themes indeed. Playwright Rajiv Joseph seems to be saying that we are all connected  even in death.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Musa) and Pomme Koch (Uday). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Do not miss this brilliant production!

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo plays through September 30, 2012 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.

1 COMMENT

  1. Saw this last night! I agree with the critique and the superb fare. I also used the same phrasing…not for the “faint of heart”. Really thought-provoking! Again to agree with review fantastic acting…and set design is just magnificient. It has been described in some summaries as having some comedy elements…no there is some very dark and macabre humor…but I was surprised how many audience members were expecting a humorous show when I attended. Really? I was expecting grit and “in your face” attitude. Yep – that’s what I got in an interesting and “fresh” way.

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