Can a talking Bengal tiger in the Baghdad zoo serve as both a narrator and a ghost?
That might sound like a bizarre question, but it comes to mind presently at the Lookingglass Theatre. The titular big cat in Rajiv Joseph's distinctive drama “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is a laconic, fatalistic type, whom we first meet inside a cage in the bombed-out Baghdad Zoo guarded by an edgy pair of U.S. Marines scared by what they've experienced as part of their ill-defined mission to Iraq and unsure whether their job is to liberate or loot.
At the start of the evening, our narrator, played by Troy West, makes the ill-considered decision, being hungry and all, to bite off the hand of one of his guards (played, sturdily, by Walter Owen Briggs). That leads the other, younger guard (the lively JJ Phillips) to blow the tiger away. But the beast is only killed in one layer of reality. He continues to pad his way through the soldiers' dreams.
Joseph's formatively ambitious play, which is always interesting even if ultimately not entirely satisfying, was seen on Broadway in 2011 with Robin Williams as Tiger. That was, frankly, a truly bizarre theatrical experience. “Bengal Tiger” is certainly not what is traditionally thought of as a Broadway play; most of the audience was there to see Williams, whom they quite reasonably thought would be funny. The comedian was, for sure, considerably more warm-centered than West's Chicago version of the tiger, but this play is no laugh riot. I was on the side of the paying customers. Notwithstanding Williams' indisputable right to stretch himself, this felt a lot like a bait-and-switch.
Heidi Stillman's Lookingglass production does not have to contend with that mismatch of expectation and actuality. It struggles, on occasion, to find the narrative drive in the piece, especially in the rather befuddling and overly ruminative second act, but it has a very humane and intelligent piece of direction that keeps events on a human scale, so much as this particular piece of writing affords that particular opportunity. There is more humor in the script than the production finds, although Stillman certainly achieves a fluid theatricality.
“Bengal Tiger” is about many things: the war in Iraq, of course; the impact of conflict on soldiers; the difficulty of surviving with your body and your dignity attached; and the horrors of destroying an ancient culture (the zoo is, in many ways, a metaphor for all the Iraqi assets, be they antiquities or living people, in great peril).
One of the play's central Iraqi characters, Musa (the moving Anish Jethmalani), is a gardener with a love of topiary (an affection beautifully exploited by Stillman and her set designer, Daniel Ostling). That peaceful existence is quickly shattered, and Musa finds himself careening from one horror to the next, almost wishing he suffered the same fate as that chatty tiger.
One of the great strengths of this work is how Joseph charts the way anything and everything that was good and pure in Iraq was destroyed by a succession of plunderers and invaders, such as Uday Hussein (an unstinting Kareem Bandealy), who makes an appearance looking like a 1970s porn star.
But, to return to my leading question, the problems of this play, especially on a second viewing, feel mostly structural. One can buy a talking tiger, even a dead talking tiger, but it's the confusions of character and narrator that lead one to unease in this enterprise, especially since West and Stillman clearly have decided that we're not supposed to like the beast.
Sure, this was a time and place of few noble characters. But any talking tiger deserves to have a clear point of view.
When: Through March 17
Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $36-70 at 312-337-0665Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times