A View from the Cliff: “Bengal Tiger” Roars in Brooklyn

Tormented souls overrun the devastated Garden of Eden in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s masterpiece receives an intense theatrical treatment by Brooklyn College’s Department of Theater.

At Saturday afternoon’s performance, bearded and bare-chested Joseph Nicholas Masi is the tiger incarnate. He is chained to the 2003 rubble at the war-torn Baghdad Zoo. After his execution, he becomes a “ghost” who spews four letter words and taunts anyone around him. Masi is excellent as he triggers spine-tingling reactions from his victims.

Director Nicholas Cotz offers an anguished, brutal and extremely bloody vision of the real and supernatural events during the American invasion of Iraq. Is this a violent war story, a metaphorical tale of spirits and self destruction or a biblical revelation?

Choosing the biblical approach, was ancient Iraq, located in the Fertile Crescent, the site of the Garden of Eden? Perhaps the two American soldiers, well played by Drew Morris and Lorenzo Cromwell, are Cain and Abel. After all, one causes the death of the other. Then the survivor is overwhelmed with guilt. Am I my brother’s keeper? Indeed!

Naren Weiss as Musa, the Iraqi translator and creator of the zoo, takes on much deeper symbolism. Does he represent a divinity corrupted by war? Amy Lopatin as a leper whose face and hands are ravaged by the disease is both ancient biblical symbol and modern victim of war’s insidious intentions. Nazli Sarpkaya plays Musa’s sister and a prostitute. Weiss’s reactions to Sarpkaya’s characters confirm the wrenching consequences of humanity at war.

The most mesmerizing character is Jose Sonera as Saddam Hussein’s monstrous son, Uday. In the story, he is already a ghost who swaggers across the stage. His voice and gestures are arrogant, ferocious and spellbinding. Well done!

Meanwhile, special effects bombard the senses. Floodlights blind the audience (Sarah Johnston, lighting design). Explosions and crickets compete for our attention (A.J. Surasky, sound design). Realistic costumes (Allison Dawe) are eerie and disconcerting.

Most impressive is Set Designer Joe Burkard’s almost supernatural setting. A large amount of Arabic is spoken. Nods to Amal Elkhair (Language Coach) and Charlotte Fleck (Dialect Coach). Bows for fight director Robert Tuftee, dramaturg Shehzad Ghias and stage manager Eric Ort.

For information on this and future productions, surf to www.depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/theater/ or check the box office at 718-951-4500. As always, save me a seat on the aisle.


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