Review: ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ at San Francisco Playhouse (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Bengal Tiger at the Bhaghdad Zoo” plays at the San Francisco Playhouse from October 1, 2013 through November 16, 2013).

Rajiv Joseph’s take on war and human nature received an award as Outstanding New American Play from the National Endowment of the Arts, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. (The Prize that year went to “Next To Normal”, which, coincidentally, also has a current production in San Francisco.)

Joseph’s play is a surrealist black comedy in which the ghost of a tiger from the Bhaghdad Zoo wanders through the streets during a time of war, reflecting upon his tiger nature and worrying how he might atone for it. His philosophical reflections are counterpointed with the story of the American soldier who shot him. The soldier can see the tiger and feels haunted by him. Gradually, the audience comes to realize that what is haunting the soldier is the cruel nature of our humanity, our own tiger within. In desperation the soldier cries to the tiger, “Get out of my head!”, but the tiger is inescapable.

The ghosts of the Tiger (Will Marchetti, L) and Marine (Craig Marker, R) ponder God. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli
The ghosts of the Tiger (Will Marchetti, L) and Marine (Craig Marker, R) ponder God. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The plot also involves the experience of an Iraqi gardener and sensitive topiary artist, now a translator for the Americans, who is himself haunted by the ghosts of his tortured sister and  her rapist Uday Hussein, the dictator’s dead son, who was his former boss. Further plot complications involve the fate of Uday’s solid gold-plated pistol as well as a  gold-plated toilet seat from Hussein’s looted palace.

The combination of violence, surrealism and off-the-wall humor adds up to a production that is riotously funny and deeply moving as well as disturbing. Director Bill English has drawn outstanding performances from all of his actors, but Craig Marker is especially brilliant as a naive boy tragically caught up by war and desperately trying to make sense of things. The always capable Mr. Marker is one of San Francisco’s leading actors and this is some of his best work.

The set design (also by Bill English) serves the play perfectly, incorporating  the topiary design of Ben Schmidt and superb projection design by Micah J. Stieglitz.

Find more information here.

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“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” by Rajiv Joseph, a regional premiere produced by San Francisco Playhouse. Director: Bill English. Sound Design: Steven Klems. Costume, Props & Blood Design: Tatjana Genser. Lighting Design: Dan Reed. Projection Design: Micah J. Stieglitz. Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer. Set Design: Bill English. Topiary Design: Ben Schmidt. Arabic Coach: Dolfaker Al-Waheed. Prosthetics: Paul Theren.

Musa: Kuros Charney. Livia Demarchi: Hadia/Prostitute. Pomme Koch: Uday/Iraqi Man. Gabriel Martin: Tom. Craig Marker: Kev. Will Marchetti: Tiger. Sarita Ocon: Woman/Leper.

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