Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Beauty and Wonders of Discovering Animal Planet - Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo - Play Review

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo - Richard Rogers Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Rajiv Joseph, Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Runs until July 3rd 2011

Robin Williams headlines the Broadway production of this Pulitzer nominated play, but the entire cast works in such harmony together in this stunning production of Rajiv Joseph's superb play. Williams manages to inhabit the title role of the Bengal Tiger and gives his line passionate bite, keeping the zingers along, without overtaking the play with his Robin Williamsness, but he nicely reigns himself in to let Arian Moayed (Tony nominated for this role) and Brad Fleischer (Streamers) take on the central roles.

The play takes place at the Baghdad Zoo, where American soldiers (Fleischer and Glenn Davis) are watching the remaining animals, including a Bengal Tiger (Williams), after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Musa, an Iraqi translator is assigned to help the soldiers during their missions, but when Davis' Tom shows Fleischer's Kev the golden gun he took from a raid on Saddam Hussein's palace after Hussein's death, they accidentally kill the Bengal Tiger, who begins to haunt the soldiers.

What transpires is a hauntingly beautiful, and often funny look at the afterlife, and the amount we value actual human life, partially spewed by a Tiger, and through the tense lives of the American soldiers and the Iraqi translator, as they weave their way around Baghdad trying to avoid getting bombed themselves.

Arian Moayed makes a mesmerizing Broadway debut as the once nervous Musa who understands the English language on the page but trying to learn the English that American soldiers actually speak. The miscommunication is both funny and terrifying as the stakes in Baghdad can turn in a split second, all while Musa remains haunted by the tragedies he has seen his people suffer.

Brad Fleischer's Kev is not the brightest man on earth, but as the US government has entrusted him with a gun in his hands to protect the peace, there's quite a responsibility that Kev does not fully understand how to handle. Fleischer manages to turn what could easily have been a caricature, and fully encapsulates a stereotype of an American soldier and stuffs it full of emotion as story flips the simplicity in his character around.

Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan and Hrach Titizian are terrific in various roles of Iraqi citizens, including Vand's Hadia, who has a connection to Musa's past and current mental state, while Titizian is wonderfully slick and dangerous as an angry Iraqi (won't go into details to avoid spoilers).

The beautiful production is designed by Derek McLane (busy this Broadway season with designs for How To Succeed and Anything Goes, and the simple beauty of the recent revival of Ragtime), and his sets quickly evoke Baghdad with very minimal, but very grande designs. Kaufman's staging allows Joseph's thrilling, chilling, and yet humour play to breathe with its excellent cast (most whom are making their Broadway debuts) while inserting Robin Williams perfectly into the mix without glares of stunt casting, while harnessing the star's quality to the benefit of Joseph's play.

Don't let the Tonys snubbed nominations for Robin Williams or the play be a sign of the quality of this play, nor don't shudder at seeing Baghdad in the title deter you. The play is far more entertaining and entrenching than the title may lead you to believe, and is not to be missed, including Arian Moayed (who IS nominated for a Tony) and Brad Fleischer's performances.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
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