TIO Denver: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” The Edge

TIO Denver: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” The Edge

edgelogoEditor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark is the author of “Antler Dust” and “Buried by the Roan,” both on the shelves of Telluride’s own Between the Covers Bookstore, 224 West Colorado Ave, Box 2129. He is also a former reporter (Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News) and television producer (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), now working in public relations. Mark also now writes theatre reviews for TIO, such as the one that follows.

Steel yourself. Sitting ringside in the tiny, serene space that is The Edge Theatre in Lakewood, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” offers an unflinching, up-close view of humanity under the strain, pain, shock, and many-layered psychoses of war.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is wickedly funny in spots and gut-wrenching in others. It is fanciful, imaginative, colorful, memorable, and poignant. You can’t help but wonder how playwright Rajiv Joseph came up with the challenge of telling the story of Operation Iraqi Freedom (and war in general) through the eyes of a tiger, the dead tiger’s ghost, two American soldiers, an Iraqi translator, the ghost of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, and three Iraqi women (one of whom is playing the ghost of the translator’s sister).

Got it?

It works. And it works to powerful effect in The Edge Theater’s production, directed by Richard Cowden.  This is a searing drama shot through (ahem) with wickedly funny zingers. I don’t need to flash “spoiler alert” to say that nobody comes out looking too good—predator or prey, captor or captive, animal or human, Christian or Muslim, East or West.

The dead tiger has the keenest insights. He’s stuck in tiger purgatory and he’s quite frustrated to find himself still hanging around the streets of Baghdad, bombs and soldiers and fighting all around.  Alive, “Tiger” paces in his cage. As a ghost, he prowls the streets, but he’s still stuck.

The dead tiger is amused by the knowledge and insights he finds himself acquiring in the after-life. He haunts the mind of the American soldier, Kev, who killed him. In fact, the tiger’s ghost drives Kev quite crazy and the cycle of death and ghosts, of humans succumbing to their fears, has just begun.

Paul A. Page’s turn as Tiger is brilliant. He is your curious, befuddled uncle with more questions than answers. He can flash terror and scare the bejeezus out of you, sure, but more often than not he’s just another misunderstood beast who sees the world in black and white (hungry or not hungry) terms. He’s a bit disheveled and genuinely amused by the lies and deception around him. As a trapped animal, Page paces sharply in his cage, too familiar with his boundaries. Once freed as a ghost, Page stumbles around the city like a slightly drunk bum looking for a way out of the craziness around him. The contrast is terrific.

In the up-close space that is The Edge, there’s no room for an actor to hide but nobody in this troupe—marching to Cowden’s crackling, click-along pace—needs cover. Kevin Lowry is tough and intense as Kev and when the soldier goes nuts Lowry lets us see and feel the twisted darkness. Kev’s madness is just another form of reality; his reality. More than once I flashed on Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman (from “Breaking Bad.”) The ghost of Tiger wreaks havoc on Kev’s sanity. As Kev’s fellow soldier Tom, Nathan Bock is stern-jawed, straight-backed and perfectly desperate in his search for the gold-plated gun and gold-plated toilet seat that he pilfered from Hussein’s house and that now represent his ticket to a better life, if he can just find them and get back home.

The play puts Kev and Tom through some gritty scenes, but it’s the translator Musa who has, in some ways, the farthest to travel, the most to hide, and the most to reveal. Sam Gilstrap’s Musa made me forget I was watching an actor. “Bengal Tiger” demands a full range of work and Gilstrap makes it look easy (including seamless switches from Arabic to English; something the two female actors, Yasmin Sweets and Miranda Vargas, also handle with polished ease).

And, finally, Alberto Ocampo as Uday Hussein’s ghost grabs your attention in a big way—and not only because he’s carrying around the head of his brother Qusay in some sort of gauze wrapper. Ocampo’s mocking treatment of Musa, the translator, and his spiteful disgust of the American war effort carry the weighty message for all those who defended Saddam Hussein—and Ocampo delivers the arrogance and conceit with energy and a delighted, near child-like enthusiasm.

(Watching “Bengal Tiger” at about the same time as President Obama and the United States Congress are deciding how to handle the Syrian situation, it’s easy to think that many of Usay’s utterly dismissive views are echoing in the streets of Damascus today.)

One of the nifty themes in “Bengal Tire at the Baghdad Zoo” is that when you die you get to sit back and observe your life and trouble the mental stability of the living. Tiger, Usay, Kev and Tom all get their chance. It’s Tiger that leads the charge, spewing a steady assault of f-bombs and contemplating a series of philosophical bits about life, existence, atheism and much more. The verbal shrapnel, frequently wrapped in observations about God and religion, comes flying fast. The spare, multi-tasking set and stark lighting (Price Johnston and Andy Killion) draw the audience smack into the action and make you wonder if you forgot to pack your Kevlar vest. A repeat viewing would no doubt prove valuable. The script is dense and chewy.

From the first quivering leg of the big cat to final pounce, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is compelling theater. And it’s disturbing. After all, if the ghost of a tiger is the most self-aware creature among us, we’re all in a whole lot of trouble.

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