The Iraq war is a topic about which a lot has been said and written. But it’s never received quite the treatment that Rajiv Joseph has given it in his play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” now playing at Lookingglass.
You would expect a play about the Iraq war to be frank, but you may not expect it to be quite as brutal. Of course, it should be. Mr. Joseph’s treatment of the war and the people who fought it is unflinching and existential. A world where anything can and does happen, where the dead and the living intersect, and where the dead are mostly a bit wiser than they were in life. The title character (Tiger), played by Troy West, is forever questioning his existence, his place in the world. This play is peopled by ghosts, from Uday Hussein (Kareem Bandealy), who carries around the head of his deceased brother; the tiger, who dies at the hands of American soldiers; an American soldier desperate to reconcile his living and dead self, and finally a young girl, whose brother Musa (Anish Jethmalani) is now a translator for the American Army, after having been Uday’s Gardener. Musa’s specialty had been topiary: beautiful art in such a terrible place.
Director Heidi Stillman has created a world where you never know what will happen next, and the violence inherent in her world seems shocking and all too necessary at the same time. Ms. Stillman’s action never stops, even when we wish it would. Walter Owen Briggs and JJ Philips give us portraits of soldiers that are aware of the unnecessary nature of their involvement, but just trying to stay alive and sane at the same time. Anish Jethmani’s Musa is a man tortured by the events of his past and present, and it’s only a matter of time before something goes horribly wrong. Kareem Bandealy has a great time with Uday’s evil nature. We almost admire his frankness. It’s unfortunate, however, that Troy West’s Tiger doesn’t really get where he needs to go. His movements seem listless, and his questions idle.
All in all, though, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is a well-acted, tension-filled evening, an important play for our time.