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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo — Temple Theaters at the Adrienne

1610790_801351956551983_8848130239361750316_nI know Darryl Gene Daughtry, Jr. is an effective actor because his  portrayal of Kev, a jumpy, quick reacting soldier in Rajiv Joseph’s play, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” kept me on edge and annoyed me the entire time Daughtry was on stage.

Kev is one of those characters who never lets up. His nervous energy doesn’t permit him to stay still or quiet for five seconds. He’s always poking into things or toying dangerously with his automatic rifle or some other weapon. His chatter is constant, concentrating on things like whether he or his patrol mate, Tom, have scored sex on a given night or about the gold-plated gun the more disciplined Tom procured from Uday Hussein’s palace as a potentially lucrative spoil of  the war in Iraq. Tom also absconded with a gold toilet seat, which he buried for later collection.

Kev’s talk is not on a high level. It usually veers between carping about the war, expressing  envy about Tom’s luck with “souvenirs,” or sharing some gossipy aspect of barracks life. Kev is one high-strung guy, and he is always eager to use his gun or engage someone, enemy or not, in some sort of combat. I couldn’t wait for Joseph to find some pretext to kill him, my impatience being a compliment to Daughtry.

As I said, Kev’s irritating. Especially in contrast to the calm businesslike Tom, just as young, ordinary, and small-townish as Kev but more mature and rational. Except for one impulsive and childish act that costs him his right hand and places him in further peril. Tim Dugan is strong in the part for Temple Theaters. He provides a solid core of authenticity to Joseph’s ambitious piece that blends fantasy and the supernatural with stark, unattractive reality, not only about vestiges of war, but about human nature. Dugan’s Tom is a character you want to see succeed.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” covers a lot of philosophical ground and it delves deeply into life, death, and the need, or yen, to survive, literally and practically in a place of waste and turmoil. Joseph’s characters and images are powerful, and he has much of consequence to say about the viciousness of people and what motivates them.

Joseph’s play neatly depicts the human traits — jealousy, fear, rationalization, game playing, revenge, expediency, power — that lead to conflict and war and presents them next to, and in tandem with, the harshness of war that robs many of their basic humanity.  Full of insight though “Bengal Tiger” is,  Joseph’s script is often too blatant in its approach. Individual sequences have intensity, entertainment value, or both, but “Bengal Tiger” seems to be assembled by the numbers, Joseph baldly plotting passage after passage with a mind towards bravura effects. His ability to interweave the fates of characters and to supply some arch, cynical dialogue, is mitigated by the simplistic way he frames his material and his ploy of using the supernatural, specifically ghosts with the will, and the ability, to do harm, to advance his story. You get the impression that Joseph is just cooking up situations for their bizarreness rather than for their poignancy and that, even when a sequence registers as meaningful or commentating, it plays like a writer’s trick instead of as an integral part of a solid play.

Temple director David Girard and an excellent cast work hard to make “Bengal Tiger” more than the sum of its parts, but this admirable troupe can only go so far in making their show moving, thought-provoking, or timely because the subtlety Joseph displays in his characters’ taunting language does not carry over to the construction of his scenes which, though sporadically dramatic and tension-fraught, are more often too direct and obvious, exemplifying the 21st century playwright’s penchant for thinking that stating a fact or telling a story is the same as unveiling an illuminating revelation.  Nuggets of wisdom spill out, and a pointedly astute overall theme, the effect of war on an average being, an effect that lasts even after deathsis eventually established, but Joseph is too self-consciously creative and too satisfied with letting a theatrical device serve as substance to keep his play taut and incisive at more than random moments.

Girard and company should take heart in the sincerity they invested in their scenes. Dugan, Alice Gatling, Ibrahim Miari, and Charlie DelMarcelle should, in particular, feel content they did a magnificent job of bringing their characters forward as the destroyed and the destroyers who bear the brunt of the world’s strife or cause it. “Bengal Tiger” has a lot of important ideas to impart, and receives a thoughtful production from Girard, but in the long run, it registers as flimsy because Joseph didn’t take his play structure, or his plotting of hallucinatory experiences, seriously enough to make his look at the demoralizing effects of war harrowing and devastating instead of glibly expedient.

The ingredients were at Joseph’s disposal to do better. “Bengal Tiger” is perceptive enough and has irony enough to be affecting. Its humor doesn’t get in the way of its potential to be more emotionally charged, particularly when Miari is center stage. Joseph doesn’t probe or get to the depth of his material. He is content to stay on the surface, and his simplicity costs him the regard that “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” hints at times of meriting.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is set in American-occupied Iraq after Saddam Hussein has been deposed but while insurgents create havoc throughout a country considered to be up for grabs, and Iraqis must anticipate a new order that hasn’t been put into total place.

The city of Baghdad is in chaos. The rubble of the invasion has not been cleared. People scavenge for shelter, clothing , and food. The only stability is supplied by the American military, which Joseph paints as wobbly. Specters of the past, including the once-powerful Husseins, haunt the landscape. The area is not fit for man nor beast.

Yet man and beast inhabit it, and they require sustenance while they wait for some semblance of routine life to be restored.

The beast we meet is a tiger. His cage alone was uncompromised during a bombing in the vicinity of the zoo that freed all of the other denizens, most of them killed by soldiers turned game hunters as the lions are other creatures gamboled towards the crowded town. Destroying the animals was a sane way of dealing with their potential threat to Baghdad’s large population.

It isn’t confinement alone that keeps the tiger in check. He knows he can leave his “dwelling,” quit the zoo, and take his chances on the street.

Intelligence dictates he stay put and look docile as a strategy for survival. The tiger, with one of the more agile minds among Joseph’s characters, reasons if he leaves what has become more his sanctuary than his prison, he will be mowed down in a hale of automatic rifle fire exactly as his former confreres in captivity were. Keenly observant, the tiger has already noticed Kev’s trigger-happy and destructive nature. He isn’t eager to test Kev’s infinitesimal ration of restraint and join the lions, hippos, and bears in oblivion. Oh, my!

Joseph has provided his play with a shrewdly articulate and calculating feline who disparages his fellow cats who thought, since Joseph’s animals can think, their muscle and ferocity would prevail against multiple rounds of modern ammunition fired at modern speed.

So the tiger, cannily played by Alice Gatling, who catches every nuance of her wily character, philosophizes, while planning to get his usual three meals a day, he will bide his time until the coast is clear of murderous adversaries. Unlike the lions, whose misjudged bravery brought their demise, the tiger determines to be less aggressive and live.

Of course, the tiger doesn’t figure on the stupidity of humans, especially since Tom, Kev’s superior on this mission, doesn’t seem to be stupid at all. He’s just a grunt who wants to fulfill his tour of duty and return to Michigan with his gold-plated gun and toilet seat to auction. Or sell as contraband on the covert market.

Tom isn’t as bright as the tiger assumes. In a moment’s lapse, he begins to taunt the hungry tiger with a candy bar extended through the bars of the cat’s cage via his right hand. The tiger, not jumping at the bait, resists, but Tom persists. Finally, out of pure exasperation, the tiger has a lapse tantamount to Tom’s and grabs the candy bar and Tom’s right hand clear to mid-wrist along with it.

You can see Gatling’s tiger thinking, “Oh, oh, that was a blunder,” because Kev, in a panic that will briefly delight him, uses the gold-plated gun Tom let him see and hold to shoot the tiger point blank. Sayonara, strip-ed one!

These acts — Tom’s teasing, the tiger’s attacking, and Kev killing the beast — set Joseph’s play in motion. We will soon see how critical details of every scene correspond with an equally important segment of another. Most of all, we will not lose the company of the tiger. He becomes a ghost that can now comment on the afterlife and curse his fate that it seems to consign him to the Baghdad he arrived in so unwillingly from the jungles of South Asia.

The tiger haunts Kev, just as every character who dies in “Bengal Tiger” haunts the being who killed him or who may have had a hand in his demise.

Lingering around after death makes the tiger more thoughtful and philosophical that ever. He, an avowed lifelong atheist, wonders if there is a divine plan and why it isn’t directed more in his favor. He is stuck in Baghdad for some purpose even though, he posits, a ghost should be free to head where he likes, the jungles of South Asia for instance.

Daughtry’s Kev, eventually killed in a hospital after he deliriously reveals he’s haunted by a talking tiger’s ghost, becomes more peaceful and palatable as a specter. Death seems to take the restless edge from him. He no longer celebrates going “bam bam bam: and offing that tiger. Quite a relief, especially since Daughtry remains laudable as Kev while not being as loathsomely annoying.

Tom, though not a ghost, returns to Iraq following a stint stateside to undergo rehabilitation for his severed hand. He says he insisted on being redeployed to complete his mission, but we know he really came back for the gun and the toilet seat. Since Joseph’s play is set in today’s time, Tom also sports a bionic hand that can do almost all his detached appendage could perform. One funny, but gratuitous scene, will show the one customary act he can’t do with a bionic prosthesis. Let’s just say his new right hand doesn’t provide the proper angle or grip for the desired procedure.

The use of the ghosts, now matter how lofty Gatling’s tiger’s cogitations are, that gets Joseph into trouble. They become a devise on which he relies too much, so much they lose their significant symbolism as an eternal casualty of war.

Gatling is entertaining, but the ghost that runs away with “Bengal Tiger” is Uday Hussein’s, as portrayed by Charlie DelMarcelle.

Uday is as caustic and commanding in death as he was in life. His pleasure is to taunt Miara’s character, Musa, now a civilian interpreter for American forces but, once upon a time, a gardener on Uday’s palatial estate and the architect of lovely topiary that graced the premises. (When the tiger sees the topiary, he is intrigued and asks why anyone would carve a menagerie out of trees and shrubs.)

Uday has always been vicious towards the gardener. DelMarcelle’s character would say, “Why not? I enjoyed being vicious and was evil to everyone since I had the privilege and license to be so.”

The ordeal of Uday torturing Musa by reminding him of a crime Uday committed against Musa’s sister is both tough and amusing to behold. The details of the offense, and the effect Uday’s words have on Musa, the character we like best at this point, are ugly and painful to hear while also being salaciously hilarious as related by DelMarcelle’s amorally remorseless and mischievous Uday.

Uday is not alone in enjoying his tormenting of Musa. He carries with him the head of his brother, Qusay, who was killed in the same attack as Uday. The villainous Uday surmises that somewhere in Baghdad, the ghost of Qusay is walking about with Uday’s head in a bag. He even talks for Qusay, DelMarcelle using a ventriloquist’s voice, as if Qusay was on his lap as a dummy. It is one of the convenient inconsistencies of Joseph’s conception that he has the ghost of Uday, and perhaps Qusay, appearing as whole beings in the afterlife but portrays a young girl who was killed by a bomb as being permanently deformed.

Besides being shamefully entertaining, Uday’s appearances reveal Musa’s link to the wider story and prevalent themes of Joseph’s play. Musa, in significant ways, becomes “Bengal Tiger’s” central character. He is the everyday Iraqi who had a good job and enjoyed the freedom he had to landscape the grand garden of the great Uday Hussein but who had his life shattered, first by Uday’s display of wanton power, and later by the ongoing war Iraq endures.

Musa is the incidental victim of conflict made by governments in the name of citizens who would forgo all conflict, and conflagration, if given a choice.

Musa knows of Uday’s might, and of Uday’s disregard for the dignity of people, but he is proud to work for him and to create the garden he, Musa, chooses with Uday’s cash. Musa is unaffected by the Hussein’s capricious rule, until he succumbs to his sister’s wish to see the topiary garden.

Then, he becomes too well acquainted with Uday’s perfidy. There’s little he can do but bear the disgrace Uday cast upon his family. When Uday is killed by American forces, and the topiary garden suffers damage from bombs and grenades, Musa is adrift. The position and the freedom to be artistic that buoyed him are gone. Musa finds a job with the American military as an interpreter, but he is already bitter, already one who wants to inflict his own pain, his own hurt as the toll the war takes on him makes him malignant and malevolent as well.

There’s Joseph’s theme, the corruption or pollution of everything based on people wanting to impose their will, laws, religion, or moralistic precepts on any one and, sometimes, everyone.

War corrupts absolutely. It affects Tom and Musa the most. Kev begins the play a bit violent, but even he is transformed by the war. He’s dead and a ghost for one thing.

The war has cost the tiger his life and has meant hardship and degradation for others. Nothing good or beneficial comes from it, only a different kind of hardship and oppression.

Uday knows this. He has wielded unbridled, unchecked power that could not be criticized by anyone who wanted to forgo the privilege of feeling Uday’s whip. He makes his point clear in Joseph’s play.

All points for all characters are made clear. Tom seeks the treasures he believes will support him, a handless veteran, in the U.S. Kev finds peace of sorts and tries to warn others to study war no more. The tiger becomes philosophical and angry. Musa breaks down in a mental frenzy. All he has experienced, and all he has longed to revenge, becomes too much for him. The only character that seemed destined for graceful, if limited, survival is a lone leper who Tom tries to enlist to his aid.

Gatling’s tiger is intrigued, and mildly appalled, at the ways of humans. The humans act appallingly. They are all swept up in the staleness, cynicism, mistrust, secrecy, and duplicity of war and its vestiges.

As I said, Joseph has points to convey. I just wish he had been more inventive and less lazy about how to present them. Half the time, I though Joseph wrote each succeeding scene by clapping his hands and saying, “Here’s a idea,” and then proceeding to sketch it out. From what I’ve described in relating the plot, you may wonder how this can be so. The ghosts, the tiebacks that relate the characters beyond the obvious, the one-handed Tom seeking help from a totally handless leper, Musa’s complicated story, Uday being as destructive in death as he was in life, the cognate between the animals in the zoo and the animals in Musa’s topiary all being marred by the war, a gold toilet seat becoming as desperately sough for as the Grail, all of these elements and developments are so cleverly placed and planned. How can any of this be considered scattershot or literarily lazy?  By remaining a series of intelligent ideas that, in spite of their novelty, remain individual incidents that coalesce to a whole by the analysis and mental leap of the auditor and the quality of David Girard’s actors. Girard provides theater enough to keep you going in watching Joseph’s play, but the director has to supply texture because Joseph treats his pearls of creativity as raw material that can be dashed off, especially in the earlier scenes, instead of expressed to its utmost potential. I would say in the long run — I know, in a very long run — Joseph’s ingenuity is for narrative that is dramatic but not theatrical. Girard had to supply the ingenuity to make “Bengal Tiger”: work as a stage presentation even though Joseph writes his narrative as a play..

Any depth in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at the Adrienne comes from Girard’s staging or his cast’s ability to play with texture and variety.

Alice Gatling is funny as the tiger, She carries the beast’s cynicism and disdain for mankind, especially Uday, to an extreme, but a comic and honest extreme.

Gatling’s tiger has a ball trying to decipher, with all of his prodigious intelligence, a complex human world. The observations the tiger makes are among the most astute in Joseph’s play, and Gatling exposes them clearly and with clarifying wit.

Charlie DelMarcelle is suave and disarming as Uday Hussein. He takes the perfect, indulgent stance as a villain who wants people to excuse, or at least rationalize, his trespasses even as he perpetrates new atrocities. He’s the bully who is so amusing in his nefarious style of intimidation, you can’t help watching and being impressed by his humor even as you are disgusted with his inhumanity towards man.

DelMarcelle can charm anyone. Nobody would imagine, let alone dare say, how much of a scoundrel and negative force Uday is. DelMarcelle can exhibit both the arrogance and the witty, though evil, side of Uday. DelMarcelle’s is a shrewd, complete comic turn, ventriloquism for Qusay and all.

Ibrahim Miari is quite moving as Musa. Even in earlier scenes, in which Musa is benign public servant, you sense the tension going on within this man. At first you suspect he is a double agent, an insurgent infiltrating American command headquarters.

This is the wrong impression. Musa is biding his time to exact a different brand of revenge for his ravished sister and ravaged garden. Miara builds the part well, exuding dignity while seething underneath, and eventually visibly, with disdain and disgust.

Miara makes Musa’s scenes with Uday uncomfortably humiliating. The scene in which he provides the denouement is a wonderful feat of acting.

Tim Dugan is appropriately straightforward and humorless as Tom, whose only interest is to collect his potential golden nest egg and vamoose. Dugan gives Tom a rough, no-nonsense edge. He portrays him as a man who won’t go out of his way to hurt or disturb anyone but won’t brook the slightest guff before punching someone out in a fit of superiority.

Dugan’s Tom is the most realistic character and the one who proceeds throughout “Bengal Tiger” with a firm and consistent purpose. Even his approach to playing  a dedicated, if self-serving, soldier is impeccable.

Kayla Tarpey brings life to the stage in both her roles as Musa’s excitable and innocent sister and a totally opposite character, a prostitute to whom Tom turns when he realizes he is unable to foment sexual satisfaction with his prosthetic hand. Stephanie Iozzia is actually moving as the leper who seems the most peaceful because he is inured to facing death and has nothing to lose from war, terrorism, or insurrection that she won’t lose anyhow.

Darryl Gene Daughtry, Jr. brings Kev to such life, you want to rein him in the same way you would often like to throttle Kev. As a quieter ghost, Daughtry continues to find the core of his character.

David Girard’s production is a good one, It doesn’t quite defeat Rajiv Joseph’s deficiencies as a writer or his scattershot plotting, but it remains constantly entertaining and elicits the theme Joseph seems intent on conveying. “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” may be far from perfect, but Girard and cast make it worth seeing .

Marie Anne Chiment did a wonderful job in costuming the cast. Liz Phillips’s lighting greatly enhanced some scenes. Michael Long’s projections, especially of the topiary, establishes the destruction of war. John Michael Eddy’s set with his movable pieces that turn into various constructions of Moorish arches and includes a lovely tile floor pattern with an Arabic flourish, is versatile and creative.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” produced by Temple Theaters, runs through Saturday, September 27, at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in  Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $25, with various discounts available, and can be obtained by calling 215-204-1122 or by visiting www.temple.edu/theater.

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