Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo -- Theater Review

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Rajiv Joseph's fine play about the ghosts of war in 2003 Baghdad, which premiered in May at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, has graduated to the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum. The first part of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" seems more polished, but the second remains unresolved. It's the same cast and crew playing the same roles, so the difference probably lies in the script.

The shift away from claustrophobic, hurtful, funny absurdity, accompanied by vaguely PC concern for the U.S. Marines (Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer), begins with a new monologue for Kevin Tighe's Tiger at the top of Act 2 in which the atheistic philosopher turns 180 degrees into a searcher for God. No wonder the play winds up less bitter than before.

As before, Act 2 presents the challenges raised by Joseph's virtuosic skill at handling words as if they were interchangeable with feelings and deeds. As before, his focus on the men and the Tiger exposes his lack of equal concern for the women. The violent, foul vernacular now seems slightly forced.

Perhaps it is time to mine the sexual tension that roils nonstop among and between Davis, Fleischer, Arian Moayed as the gardener and Hrach Titizian as the leering son of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the women in the play need to be brought more fully into the story.

The production looks more physically beautiful than before, and the technology used for the noises of war makes death less raucous. The Taper gives the play a very high ceiling, like a cathedral, and the actors' performances have become more emotionally sculpted, more rich with internal conflict, each using their bodies to maximum effect.

Tighe's Lear-like Tiger reaches even further than before for answers where he knows none exist. He's totally a ham at heart, a comic clown striking poses of Will Rogers-like humor and gravitas. Sheila Vand and Necar Zadegan play their parts with elegant, Greek-marble simplicity. If only they had more to do; if only they could be allowed into their men's dense heads.

The play is on its way to becoming an icon for the Iraq War, much in the way that "MASH" did for Korea. The question is: Will it become chiseled into the American psyche as a nightly television show or the brutal, unpleasant power of the original.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through May 30)
Cast: Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer, Arian Moayed, Kevin Tighe, Hrach Titizian, Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan
Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
Director: Moises Kaufman
Scenic designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Composer: Kathryn Bostic
Fight director: Bobby C. King
Casting: Bonnie Grisan
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