By Hedy Weiss
'Bengal TIGER at the Baghdad Zoo'
When: Through March 17
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Info: (312) 337-0665; www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Evil exists in this world. War is a madness that makes unhinged beasts of us all. And as for just where God happens to be in all this -- well, if you listen closely to "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Rajiv Joseph's dark, mournful, disorienting and very angry play, "His" existence is beyond problematic. "He is wild," concludes the tiger of the title. "And maybe HE should be in a cage."
Joseph's play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that fared less than brilliantly on Broadway (despite the presence of Robin Williams), is now receiving a ferociously acted Chicago premiere under the fine direction of Heidi Stillman. It is a good bet that no one will walk away from it feeling indifferent. I saw one handsome young man glued to his seat well after the lights came up, very clearly attempting to process all that had unfolded.
First, about that tiger, who comes in the form of a deeply philosophical, questioning man (the heavily bearded Troy West, arch, enigmatic and sardonic). He has landed in the Baghdad zoo, and is now living through the war in Iraq. When he instinctively bites off the hand of Tom (Walter Owen Briggs), the U.S. Marine who has teasingly tried to feed him, he is immediately shot to death by Tom's fellow Marine, Kev (JJ Phillips).
The tiger quickly returns in the form of a ghost in this play in which everyone ends up heavily damaged and deeply haunted. Kev, undone by the war, ends up suicidal in a mental hospital. Tom, who survives the tiger's wrath, returns to Baghdad with a prosthetic hand, determined to reclaim the gold-plated pistol and gold-plated toilet seat he looted from Suddam Hussein's palace. These tainted "trophies" will, he believes, assure his financial future.
Serving as translator for the two Marines is Musa (Anish Jethmalani in a blistering performance that beautifully captures his character's anguish, guilt and rage). Musa is an artist -- a master gardener whose topiary trees (designed by Daniel Ostling and built by Sean K. Walters) are shaped, some might say AGAINST nature, into the forms of whimsical animals ranging from a giraffe to a rhino.
Musa has created this garden of Eden under the auspices of Uday (Kareem Bndealy, sensational as Saddam's shrewd psychopath of a son). He also has paid a horrific price in the form of the destruction of a young girl he dearly loved. (She is played by Atra Asdou, who also morphs into a young Iraqi prostitute. Amy J. Carle is excellent as several older Iraqi women, and she, like Jethmalani and Phillips, even burst into Arabic at various moments.)
Joseph is not exactly subtle. And some might justifiably find his depiction of American soldiers as moronic, arrogant, prejudiced guys, to be offensive, even if he does suggest how terrified and lost they are.
What cannot be disputed here is the cumulative sense that war turns everyone into wild animals, and some are devoured, while others do the devouring. Nobody wins. And while art may be beautiul, human nature most definitely is not.
Note: This is an adults-only show.