Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Time machine to 2003

Hi everybody. If this is completely incoherent, please blame it on my throbbing headache or inability to breathe. Let me also note that I bitterly resent getting a cold in late March. Unacceptable.

Anyway, last night I went to a preview performance of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring a comedian of whom you may have heard—Robin Williams—as the title character.

That would be the Bengal Tiger, not the Baghdad Zoo.

This was the first non-musical I'd seen on Broadway in many years, and I have to say it really didn't seem to fill a theater the size of the Richard Rodgers. Maybe it's my bias, but a cast of seven who never sing—and some of whom barely speak—seems just too small for a venue that seats 1,319.

Leaving that aside, the play had some awesomeness and some less-than. It was definitely still a preview performance, so there were some moments of insecurity about timing that, for me, really threw off a few scenes. It's not that people didn't know their lines; they just were so insecure in them that they occasionally babbled through them instead of acting them. BUT, Robin Williams, despite succumbing to this occasional speed-reading feel, was fantastic. His profanity-laced opening monologue set the perfect tone for a show that revolves around slightly disturbing humor and profoundly disturbing non-humor.

For those who don't know the play, it's set in Baghdad in 2003, and it revolves around a handful of characters: the Tiger, two American Marines, and Saddam Hussein's son's gardener now working as a translator for the American military. Everyone, in one way or another, is hopelessly compromised by the invasion, and each one of them ends up with blood metaphorically on his hands/paws or literally on his body. Or both. But it's actually a comedy, sort of.

The play is especially disturbing in light of our most recent military adventure in Libya, which has all the hallmarks of another Iraq invasion: coalition of nations, promise that it will be a very quick operation, lack of debate even in the semi-public sphere of Congress, and, of course, vast endangered reserves of oil.

I have to say, the two Marines reminded me strongly of some soldiers I have known, and that isn't a compliment. The unthinking racism and constant misogyny and homophobia, combined with a lack of understanding about the impact of killing and death (until it's too late), paint a bleak but familiar picture of what goes on in our military. The characters are well written, and one of them was excellently played by Glenn Davis, but they were hard to watch. The other one, played by Brad Fleischer (who seems to be the only cast member with Broadway experience at all!?), was a frequent sufferer from the speed-reading flaw I mentioned above, but otherwise was quite convincing. Especially in his brief shirtless scene.

Standout performances by Arian Moayed as Musa the gardener/translator and Hrach Titizian as the ghost of Uday Hussein. Uday was very reminiscent of Applegate in Damn Yankees, but much, much creepier, especially in the scene where he carries around his brother's severed head and the one where he describes his rape and murder of Musa's sister. Musa is the heart of the play, despite its title, and he does an excellent job with the way the character appears first as a minor supporting role and gradually moves to the center of the emotional action.

In conclusion, I don't normally have much good to say about rape-and-murder comedy, but Bengal Tiger really deploys it's twisted humor well, making each joke in the play progressively more uncomfortable than the last. Once they work out the timing issues (SLOW DOWN. REALLY), it'll be fantastic. Just be ready for a moving, disturbing, and unbearable comedy.

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