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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Robin Williams gives a nuanced performance in the title role of Rajiv Joseph's often poetic Broadway play about sin, violence, and redemption.

Arian Moayed and Robin Williams in
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
(© Carol Rosegg)
The ghost of a tiger prowls the streets, pondering the existence of God, in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, now playing Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre. This may seem like a rather heady concept, but it is brilliantly -- and often humorously -- realized thanks in no small part to the talents of director Moisés Kaufman and Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams in the title role.

Set in Baghdad in 2003, the play utilizes the backdrop of the Iraq War to explore universal themes such as sin and redemption, as well as a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence that has already begun by the start of the play, and will surely continue after its conclusion.

The tiger dies in the very first scene, after eating the hand of an American soldier named Tom (Glenn Davis), and being shot by another soldier, Kev (Brad Fleischer). As the one who killed him, Kev is the only person who seems able to hear the specter of this talking tiger, which starts driving him insane.

The story of the soldiers intersects with that of Musa (Arian Moayed), an Iraqi translator assisting the American military forces. The gold-plated gun that killed the tiger originally belonged to Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian), one of Saddam Hussein's sons, and Musa's former employer.

In his old job, Musa was a gardener, creating large topiaries shaped as various animals. The decaying remnants of this garden, hauntingly realized by scenic designer Derek McLane, capture the attention of the tiger, and it becomes a symbol of a lost paradise, abandoned by its creator and falling into ruin, just as God seems to have likewise gone missing and let the world descend into chaos.

Williams tackles his many monologues with gusto, bringing out nuances in the text and endowing his part with a charismatic charm. It should be noted that costume designer David Zinn has not dressed the actor up as a literal tiger, instead outfitting him in what appears to be well-worn clothing of a nondescript quality.

The most complex role in the play is Musa, and Moayed skillfully brings to life his character's feelings of anger, regret, frustration, grief, and tenderness. The roles of the soldiers are unfortunately less developed, with Kev written as such a simpleton that Fleischer is hard-pressed to play him as anything but a two-dimensional figure (although, admittedly, he gets a bit more to work with in the second act).

Similarly, Uday is depicted as a stock villain that could have leapt out of the pages of a melodrama, twirling his mustache. Vand's Hadia exists more as a symbol of innocence soon to be corrupted than as a flesh-and-blood -- or even ghostly! -- presence.

Still, even if his character work could use more development, the playwright is very good at establishing atmosphere and intriguing dramatic situations. Moreover, Joseph's language is often gorgeously poetic, even as the author utilizes copious amounts of profanity. This linguistic strategy seems to mirror the play's central metaphor of the ruined garden, wherein beauty and vulgarity co-exist.