Eye on Theatre: Burning Not So Bright By John Simon

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Simon_John Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Call it excogitation. Call it elucubration. Call it Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. A bizarre fantasy is fine as long as it has some sort of ultimate meaning. But this play just gets weirder and weirder as it goes along, to end up as a shaggy tiger story.

Well, perhaps not so shaggy. Actually, the Tiger looks exactly like Robin Williams with a short grizzled beard and in derelict drag. The author wants him “past his prime, yet still tough. His language is loose, casual, his profanity is second nature.” It is 2003, Iraq at war, Baghdad on fire. The Tiger is in a cage, guarded by two American soldiers, Tom and Kev, who squabble and horse around. The Tiger pontificates, but when Tom tries to feed him, bites off his hand. Whereupon Kev shoots him dead with the gold-plated gun Tom confiscated from Uday Hussein, when Tom and some other American soldiers killed him and his brother Qusay, Saddam’s sons. 

Whereupon the Tiger becomes a ghost, wandering through Baghdad and philosophizing—death, it turns out, makes you omniscient. Uday’s untamed ghost appears with his brother’s head in a bag and talking to it. When Kev, as a tribute to Tom, chops off his own hand, which proves fatal, he too turns into a polymathic ghost. Later  we also get an old Iraqui woman, leprous and with stomps for hands. 

The scene is mostly a topiary garden, where Musa, formerly Uday’s gardener (and the play’s real hero), has beautifully sculptured in shrubbery a zooful of exotic animals, one of which has lost its head in the script, though not onstage. Their lovely green has begun to dry into brown, and Musa has become an interpreter for the American army. From Uday’s all-gilt palace, a golden toilet sea turns up and, like the golden gun, keeps changing hands, at least those that haven’t been chopped off. Tom’s new shiny, prosthetic right one seems to smell of milk and he cannot masturbate with it (with the left, it never worked). So he pays a young prostitute to stand behind him and masturbate him with her right. 

The young girl may be, or may turn into, Musa’s teen-aged sister, Hadia, whom Uday has raped and bloodied, and whom the ghost Uday will rape again even more brutally when they meet in the topiary garden, and he challenges Musa to watch. Uday is delighted that Musa killed with the golden gun Tom, who had killed him. Why did the peace-loving Musa kill Tom? Because they were in the desert and the sun was setting. Musa has even been taken for God by some, which he vehemently denies.

If this, coming at you pell-mell in the above paragraphs, as it also does onstage, feels both unsettling and incomprehensible, be sure that Joseph wants it so. If there is a linking thread in the story, it is the search for God by both the ghost Tiger and Kev’s ghost. The latter asks, “So what happens now, God? What happens now that I am intelligent and aware and sensitive to the universe?” The Tiger, who has been munching on a bloody carcass, replies, “I’ll tell you what happens: God leans down just close enough and whispers into your ear: Go fuck yourself. And then he’s gone.” 

Joseph’s imagination is vivid—the whole thing is based on a newspaper item about a tiger escaped from the zoo and shot on a Baghdad street—but, unruly, it doesn’t add up.Surreal, yes, but suggestive of what? Symbolic, perhaps, but symbolizing what? Attention-grabbing, certainly, like another Joseph play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, earlier this season, but equally pointless. There is humor, mostly dark, scattered throughout, but also rape, mutilation, and blood flowing or oozing from several characters, so not really comedy. Yet not tragic either, because, with the possible exception of Musa, the characters do not involve us enough to care. There is even much dialogue in untranslated Arabic, alienating us even further. 

This said, the production is impressive. The remarkable Derek McLane has provided some powerful Iraqui visuals, including a winning, even if withering, topiary bestiary. David Lander’s lighting adds visual spice everywhere. David Zinn has designed scrupulously authentic costumes, although he and Moises Kaufman, the effective director, could have come up with something more tigerish for Williams.

Robin Williams, in his Broadway debut (not counting a fairly disastrous Lincoln Center Waiting for Godot) is his customary saucily twinkly-eyed, brazenly inveigling self, managing to be simultaneously crowd-pleasing and ego-massaging as he saunters in and out, working up to a final imprecation of God: “God in a cage in a garden in a burning city.  Ohhh . . . What a glorious sight!” He is backed up with expert support from Glenn Davis (Tom), Brad Fleischer (Kev), Hrach Titizian (Uday), and, in the less grateful female roles, Necar Zadegan and Sheila Vand.  But the outstanding performance is the Musa of Arian Moayed, whose role requires extraordinary variety, which he delivers with exemplarily calibrated passion and eloquent understatement, including some very subtle facial plays for me.

As for me the main feeling I registered was irritation, combined with regret at a waste of what may be a genuine talent, as if a potentially gifted painter were content to deliver us doodles.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a   PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Burning Not So Bright By John Simon

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