Hi, all! I'm not sure what the Volcano will choose to do with my review of SPSCC's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. It's tricky because I was invited on short notice and my usual editor is on a much-deserved European vacation. The show only runs one more weekend so, for the time being at least, I'll post my review here. If it's posted at the new Volcano site, I'll delete it here.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
Bengal Tiger prowls a city of ghosts
It ain’t right, I tell ya. Were it not for a direct invitation from director Don Welch, I wouldn’t have known about his South Puget Sound Community College production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. I never saw a poster downtown. All but one of its actors were unknown to me. That may explain why my companion and I were the only two guests at Sunday’s matinée, but this show deserves better. It’s a slap in the face to wake up anyone who considers live theater culturally irrelevant.
Rajiv Joseph’s barrage of a script, a Pulitzer finalist, is a mere four years old. It’s set during an event only seven years older than itself: the invasion and occupation of Baghdad, which resulted in the partial destruction of an inhumane menagerie. The narrator of our story is Tiger, a zoo denizen guarded by two U.S. Marines. The savvier of the two, Tom, is in possession of two pricey items once owned by Saddam & Sons. His cohort, Kev, is a full-on imbecile who should never have been trusted with a weapon. Before long, at least one of those characters will be dead, but—as an Iraqi character so eloquently puts it—“You Americans, you think when something dies, it goes away.”
This, to be sure, is a junior college show, with all the roughness around the edges one accepts from such performances: muddled articulation, ham-handed sound cuts, memory glitches, all present and accounted for. It’s also stunningly ambitious. Most characters speak at length in what sounded, to my admittedly ignorant ears, like competent Arabic. Tavis Williams, dynamic as Laertes in SPSCC’s Hamlet last winter, stalks the stage with world-weary charisma as Tiger. Matthew Kline is painfully credible as Kev, both before and after a significant character transformation. As Tom, Kalen Manion seems more caged than any zoo animal. But one of the paradoxes woven into this script is its most charming character, the late, unlamented Uday Saddam Hussein—a despicable sociopath singlehandedly responsible for raping, torturing, and murdering unknown hundreds of innocents. Ryan Petersen plays the monster so amiably that we smile at what ought to leave us chilled to our moral centers.
This is a story rife with paradox. It’s profane, yet cares more about the nature of God than most devotional works. It’s funny, but the jokes land in horrifying ways and at all the wrong moments. It indicts everyone and no one. It’s foul-mouthed and deeply poetic. It’s a tale told by ghosts, yet feels bracingly alive. In short, it’s one of the most extraordinary scripts I’ve come across in years, and Welch and his young company play fair by it. I implore you to check it out this weekend.
[South Puget Sound Community College, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, $10-$15, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. through Aug. 18, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia, 360.753.8585]