Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
(© Craig Swartz)
Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis in
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
(© Craig Swartz)
The most prescient line in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo, now premiering at the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theater, is spoken by a ghost. And not just any ghost, but the spirit of Saddam Hussein's son. "Americans, always thinking that when things die, they go away." Those words seems to be the theme haunting this mind-bending and often exhilarating parable of war, death, and its consequences.

The story begins simply enough as two American soldiers guard a tiger in a war-torn zoo. After circumstances escalate, the tiger winds up dead in a pool of blood, and he (personified by actor Kevin Tighe, who is both ferocious and hilarious) becomes the first of many specters who disturb the living. As the play progresses, it blends gallows humor, provoking laughs by shocking the audience into nervous guffaws and realistic violence that would even make Quentin Tarantino squirm. Blood flows in the Grand Guignol tradition as the travesties of tyranny and war are shoved in our faces.

Death brings complexity to the characters as one moron becomes a scholar in languages as a ghost, and the dead animal waxes philosophically about such existential subjects as whether natural predators should be karmically punished for preying as instinct dictates. None of the living gets off scot-free from the author's microscope. Uneducated American soldiers pilfer from their enemies and act like gangsters when in the midst of wealth. Meanwhile, the Iraqi powers-that-be rape and murder for pure pleasure; and no one seems to comprehend why displaced creatures have been supplanted from their natural environments without guidance.

Director Moises Kaufman, best known for his work on I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project, and 33 Variations, has created an extraordinary production. He stages the piece almost like a film by having the stage compartmentalized for easy transitions. Equally smartly, he has the actors punctuate the despair with humor to keep the audience off guard, even by forcing them to laugh at many grotesque images and situations. And with the help of lighting designer David Lander, he floods the stage with white spots to invoke both stark ugliness and ethereal influences.

The cast is electric. As the mentally fragile, intellectually retarded soldier Kev, Brad Fleischer is heartbreaking, lost in his character's frustration, anger, anxiety and loneliness. As the opportunistic Tom, Glenn Davis evokes a street punk in soldier's clothing. Arian Moayed, as the Iraqi gardener turned Army interpreter never loses sight of the pain that his character has suffered already. Necar Zadegan lends tension to her scene as an Iraqi woman under fire and pathos in a later scene as a leper. Hrach Titizian's singsong approach to his dialogue as the younger Hussein heir is maniacal, and the melodic tempering of the words only enhances the contempt his character feels for anything human or decent.

Perhaps the most extraordinary work is done by Sheila Vand. In Act II, she plays a young but cynical Iraqi prostitute brought in to satisfy a soldier; yet, within a moment, she transitions seamlessly into another character, an innocent girl witnessing great beauty, without any of her clothes (or even hair) being altered.