The geographical setting of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is Iraq in 2003, during the early stages of the U.S.-led military invasion of the country and its campaign to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. The play is all over the map in a theatrical sense, too — by turns both audacious and awkward — as it fluctuates between soulful drama and absurdist comedy, alternately tinged with touches of magical realism and ominous fantasy.
In co-artistic director Michael Haverty’s gutsy 7 Stages undertaking, Kevin Stillwell embodies the title role of a philosophical feline, a narrator of sorts who guides the action. Shot and killed after a vicious attack in the opening scene, he soon re-emerges as the first of several ghosts that materialize throughout the play to haunt the hearts and minds of the living. Plagued by “existential quandaries,” the tiger ponders not only the meaning of his own life, but also the hell of war.
Stillwell’s assignment is a difficult one, and he acquits himself respectably, to be sure, although his performance is effectively friskier than particularly ferocious, somewhat more playful than profound. (Robin Williams originated the part on Broadway in 2011.)
Those actors in the cast portraying Joseph’s human characters — among the living and the dead — fare a bit better, including Joe Sykes and Markell Williams as a pair of gung-ho Marines. Probably best of all is Rudy Roushdi as a deeply conflicted Iraqi, a former gardener for Saddam-turned-reluctant translator for the Americans.
Under the dire circumstances of the situation, the show’s comedic inclinations will either take some getting used to or gradually wear a little thin, depending on your personal taste and point of view. They largely rest in the unlikeliest of places, with Sam Younis as the spectral spirit of Hussein’s late son, the equally ruthless Uday.
A pivotal prop in the play is Uday’s gold-plated gun, initially confiscated following the deadly raid on his mansion. As it passes from one character’s possession to another’s, so are they soon visited and unhinged by various apparitions from the afterlife and casualties of the war.
Joseph’s tonal imbalance is deliberate, of course, but it isn’t always fully complemented by the stylistic design of Haverty’s production. The minimal set (by Lito Tamez) doesn’t sufficiently evoke the atmosphere of battle-torn Baghdad. And those other-dimensional ghosts roam on and off the stage rather unceremoniously, when the director might have done more with the lighting (by Stevie Roushdi) or the special effects (by Vii Kelly) to emphasize them and distinguish them from the real world they invade and inhabit.
Fascinating in its concept, if flawed in its execution, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is an undeniably ambitious attempt, despite some slightly faulty results. Then again, come to think of it, perhaps that makes the 7 Stages show an entirely suitable metaphor for the Iraq War itself.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”
Through Oct. 8. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 7 only). $15-$25. 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-523-7647, www.7stages.org.
Bottom line: It’s complicated.
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