THEATER REVIEW: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Aunt Dan, and Searching for Humanity through Theater

During recent visits to the theater, two plays have raised questions about how our society confronts and copes with our basic animal instincts, and the complicity of individuals in destructive acts performed by their societies. They’ve also presented complex existential arguments about the limits of communication and the need to be satisfied by what is, rather than by what one wishes could be. The two plays? Rajiv Joseph’s current Broadway production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Robin Williams’ Broadway debut) and a production of Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan & Lemon from Buffalo, New York theater company Torn Space.

The text of Shawn’s Aunt Dan & Lemon is densely packed. It challenges its audience members to calculate the cost of their peace of mind and their tribe’s way of life, and weigh it against the right of other tribes – Shawn refers to these groups as people who share a common way of life – to exist as they wish. The script extends arguments to their most ridiculous extremes, and then holds up a mirror to real life situations where the extreme has in fact become reality.  In Shawn’s play, viewers are asked to reflect on their own culpability in atrocity. When the play premiered in the 80s, it related to the Cold War and AIDS – but not having read that in the production notes prior to the start of the show, I still found the production extremely relevant to the newer moral and ethical challenges society faces. What is the individual’s personal responsibility toward challenging harmful status quos, and at what point should the individual take action?

The production and questions it raised were still fresh in my mind as I headed to Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway (official British Theatre Guide review here). In this blog, I want to discuss the connection that I felt between Joseph’s sensitive yet merciless portrayal of the other side of Shawn’s coin: the experiences of those who are on the front lines of a society trying to protect its own way of life. Framed around a quest for a golden gun – and a post-death search for the meaning of life – Joseph’s play is absurd and surreal and wonderful. It’s a downer. Everybody dies – but in Joseph’s Baghdad, that’s just the beginning, and to paraphrase a certain cinematic Gladiator , what the characters do in life echoes along the path of their journey toward eternity.

Undeniably dark, Joseph’s play also offers some comfort: death happens suddenly, particularly in a war zone, but perhaps death is just the beginning of a new phase of existence. Interpreted as a metaphor for the transition from life into death, Bengal Tiger’s absurdity becomes a sort of prayer to possibility – delivered by an atheist Tiger railing against the God he’s already denounced, finally coming to peace with his own “tiger-ness” and striving toward his own definition of heaven: a state of not-being-hungry. Metaphorically, then, Joseph suggests that the meaning of life is a quest for spiritual and physical satisfaction.

Through Joseph’s central characters: Marines Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis) and the desperate and conflicted translator/gardener Musa (Arian Moayed) – the audience is allowed to feel the experiences of those trapped in a war zone and psychological prison all in one:

Musa tries to translate the words of an Iraqi family to a frantic, maniacal Kev. Tom, whose presence of mind bears an inverse relationship to his desperation, deteriorates after a deformity-causing accident. Haunted by the ghost of Uday Hussein, secrets from Musa’s past inform his actions in the present. The Tiger explains to the ghost of a one-eyed child that he has brought her to God’s Garden, and the audience must confront the levels of truth and reality inherent in that statement of ownership. Uday screams at Musa that the garden does not belong to the gardener, but surely one could argue that the garden belongs to its creator. Each character is briefly contemplated as a possible “god.” Each character falls short of achieving their dreams or potential, limited by their human failings.

Like Wallace Shawn’s  Lemon points out in its final monologue, and as the audience surely must conclude at the end of Bengal Tiger, human beings have far from overcome our animal instincts. The atheist Tiger accepts that he is what his creator – or perhaps, more appropriately, Creation – made him and finds peace with his existence. Lemon’s fascination with the concept of compassion – an emotion she herself has never felt – can be compared to how the Tiger wants to understand his place in the universe.

Similarly, to me, there is a connection between how Aunt Dan & Lemon speaks about love, and how Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo talks about understanding God. Both plays take their respective concepts and acknowledge how there comes a point where the feeling of love, or the existence of Creation (existence, the physical world) can exist only as a thing unto itself. It cannot be further understood through analysis, simply experience. Lemon talks about how the emotional ideal of love is ruined once that love is expressed. The Tiger proposes that looking for meaning in life beyond the simple fact that it exists is useless, because the world around us is itself the most eloquent explanation any creator could ever be expected to give.

While the final night of Torn Space’s Aunt Dan & Lemon was packed, there were plenty of empty seats in the Richard Rogers theater when I went to see Bengal Tiger. Hopefully ticket sales will be strong and the play’s run long. It’s a piece of drama that opens up new opportunities for dialogue and understanding. Running at two hours (including an intermission 60 minutes in), it’s a lean, pointed piece that trusts the intelligence of its audience as it careens through absurdity after horrifying absurdity, staying anchored in part due to the straightforward and matter-of-fact manner in which it displays the cruelty of war.

So, from both their beginnings in seemingly straightforward drama – Aunt Dan & Lemon as a middle-class trip down memory lane, and Bengal Tiger as a gritty war epic – these plays open the doors to deep and sometimes challenging questions about the relationships between individuals, societies, and beliefs. They’re not for the light of heart, but those who to put in the time to read either script – or visit the Richard Rodgers Theater  while the Broadway run is still going – will find themselves richly rewarded.

Read my review of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at The British Theater Guide.

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