A Bengal tiger, lost in the metaphors

From left: Robin Williams, Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis in a scene from "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Sam Rudy Media Relations, Carol Rosegg)
From left: Robin Williams, Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis in a scene from "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Sam Rudy Media Relations, Carol Rosegg) (Ellen Dunkel)
Posted: March 31, 2011

NEW YORK - The ghosts and demons in the new play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened Thursday night with Robin Williams in his Broadway debut, may intrigue you, but the clutter of metaphors may drive you to distraction.

I appreciate that playwright Rajiv Joseph has an solid sense of scene writing that easily juxtaposes humor with raw conflict - and that he's trying to tell us something about America's involvement in Iraq and the involvement of Iraqis with their former regime and its aftermath.

But Bengal Tiger is laden with a confusion of symbols, everything from a topiary garden (that's supposed to represent ... what?) to a Pieta-posed pair of unlikely characters. There's a clueless Marine who becomes smart only in death (also representing something, I suspect) to a street-smart Marine who may or may not be the stand-in for American aggression and arrogance.

The tiger, played by Williams, surely means something else altogether; the animal speaks to us in life as a tiger and in death as a salty philosopher deep into a metaphysical exploration of God and meaning.

Bengal Tiger was so successful in a production by Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group that it was staged one season, then remounted last year, when I saw it and first failed to understand what it was attempting to do. (Much of the cast comes from those productions, and Williams is the Broadway addition.) The New York version is equally incomprehensible although more muscular, mostly because Williams delivers an instinctive, befuddled and thoroughly charming tiger that draws us in. A gruffer West Coast characterization held us at arm's length.

Williams is well accompanied at the Richard Rodgers Theatre by Arian Moayed in a fine performance as a Saddam Hussein-regime gardener turned translator for the Marines. Glenn Davis is a Marine maimed in an imbroglio at the zoo in Baghdad, Brad Fleischer is his immature partner on duty, Hrach Titizian is the dead sadist Uday Hussein, and Sheila Vand and Necar Zadegan take several female roles.

The play, in a production directed by Moisés Kaufman, clearly wants to be insightful, but its fantasy context - dead characters talking to the people they haunt and eventually to each other - combines with the metaphors to make Bengal Tiger abstract. In the end, it's a mish-mash. We should be mulling over something, but what?


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|