April 16, 2011

Bengal Tiger on Broadway

I was looking forward to watching Robin Williams on Broadway during his Weapons of Self Destruction tour. But he ended up canceling because he needed heart valve replacement surgery. Now he is back for his Broadway debut in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. And I wasn't going to miss him again. (Although I still would have preferred to see his stand-up routine.)
Rajiv Joseph's play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Mr. Williams is in the title role. He acts as narrator, observing the chaos after the 2003 Iraqi invasion. The zoo is now guarded by American soldiers, with Tom (Glenn Davis) and Kev (Brad Fleischer) at the tiger cage. Tom kindly but stupidly tries to feed the poor tiger, whose animal instincts quickly take over. Kev fatally shoots the tiger to save his comrade-in-arms. (Sadly, they couldn't save Tom's arm.) The tiger's ghost then wanders around war-torn Baghdad, having an existential crisis, seeking the answer to the eternal question: "Why am I here?"

Kev meets Musa, a translator working with the Americans. He is haunted by his own past as an employee of Uday Hussein. He is the most complex and compelling character, torn between love for his country and repulsion for the Husseins, abhorrence for the invaders. An artist at heart, he embodies the culture clash, confusion, and moral dilemmas of the conquered.
Tom returns to Iraq, eager to retrieve items he had stolen from the homes of the Hussein sons. Soon enough, the characters' lives (and deaths) intersect. It becomes a treatise on violence, war, life, death, and the afterlife. And yet for such a heavy subject matter, there was more humor than I expected. Mr. Williams gives a restrained performance. (We did get to see a bit of Robin Williams' manic, improvisational comedic skills after the show. He auctioned off a photo op at his dressing room to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. They raised $750.)
The set design is beautiful, conveying the stark beauty of the desert, the lost glory of the opulent mansions and gardens, the ruins of Baghdad. Iraq is considered the cradle of civilization after all.

Brad Fleischer is Kev, the immature and impulsive soldier haunted by the tiger.
Sheila Vand, playing an Iraqi teenager. She also plays Hadia, Musa's sister.
Sensitive Musa was played by the excellent Arian Moayed. His Broadway debut is spectacular. That's Hrach Titizian, a scary and very creepy Uday Hussein, behind him.

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