BOSTON — The recent production of “War Horse” saw World War I through the perspective of a horse drafted into service. “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” sees the war in Iraq through the perspective of the titular tiger killed in captivity at the beginning of the play.
Maybe we’ve become so jaded that humans can no longer tell the “War is Hell” story with much emotional resonance and we need a four-legged perspective on the matter. Not that Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-finalist play of 2010 is technically an antiwar play. There are more things dreamed of in Joseph’s philosophy. Like, oh, the meaning of life?
And it is amusing to hear such existential thoughts coming from the lips of a tiger, played in the Company One production at the Boston Center for the Arts (through Nov. 17) by Rick Park. That’s the role originated by Robin Williams in New York.
The fact that such musings are set in a conflict that tore one country apart physically and tore another one apart politically gives the proceedings a real theatrical heft. You can’t get much more life and death than Iraq. The story starts out with two GIs in the zoo, taunting the tiger – an act that will cost one of them his hand and the tiger his life.
Not to worry, though. The tiger finds himself in an afterlife, haunting the country and the two GIs. This is more than your average ghostly dilemma because he tells us that he, like fellow tigers, is an atheist.
All the characters are either haunting or haunted. Among the former is Uday Hussein, who’s doing some taunting of his own to the brother of the young girl Hussein butchered. Hussein sets about teaching the brother the joys of killing.
The argument then is about our predatory nature – the tiger’s as well as the humans’. Since an afterlife would suggest the presence of God, the tiger’s fury is aimed at a God who would make us predators and then declare such a nature to be sinful.
But despite crisp, mordant humor and some very good lines I can’t say that the production reached me very deeply, though I had a hard time figuring out whether the problem was with Joseph’s script or the Company One production. Too much of the play seems rooted in Silence of God 101. And some of the actors aren’t quite up to the material. Then again, is that interminable, top of the lungs death throes in Act Two bad playwriting, acting or direction (the reliable Shawn LaCount)?
At the same time, there’s some terrific acting by Mason Sand as Uday and Michael Dwan Singh as Musa, the translator whose sister was killed by Uday. Rick Park turns in a winning performance as the tiger, though his sarcastic affect could be more rounded. It can seem one-dimensional at times.
I’m happy that Company One did the play; I just wish I liked it as much as I admire it.