Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
In case you’ve been on an extended trip (as I was until recently), or in a somnambulistic state, there’s reason to celebrate for those of us who follow the local theatre scene. We now have a brand new company in town, and, judging by its most recent production, it’s a group well worth watching.
Under its formal name, EPOCH (Empowering People of Color Hawai’i), the company is devoted to plays that express a greater diversity of thought, ideas and world views of people of color and to providing artists of color greater opportunities to work in all aspects of theatre-making.
Aside from TAG’s admirable series of August Wilson works, through which many outstanding POC talents were first discovered, and Kumu Kahua’s mission to present plays based on local issues and characters, the remainder of our community theatres generally feature mainstream plays and musicals. Standing quite apart from the rest is Honolulu Theatre for Youth, which serves the younger generation beautifully and often produces plays with ethnic themes.
Although I was sorry to have missed EPOCH’s first offering, The Mother f*** with a Hat, I heard great reports about it so I was even more anxious to see the next production, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The play, which was well received on Broadway, uses the actual incident of the bombing of the Baghdad Zoo and subsequent escape of many animals as its premise.
In the intimate Ong King Arts Center in Chinatown, the play opens with a scene between two young US soldiers (Reb Beau Allen and Javonta Light) who are guarding the still captive tiger (Saul Rollason). While the soldiers banter and joke, the tiger ruminates on his fate, comparing his noble self to the stupid “leos” who chose to escape and subsequently were killed. While the dialogue is often humorous, there is a thread of angst and terror underlying the text. To describe the end of that opening scene would be to divulge much of the plot development. Suffice it to say that, during the course of the two acts, we meet a rich cast of characters ranging from Musa, the Kurdish Arabic language translator and former palace gardener (Maseeh Ganjali who also co-directed the play along with Edo Natasha); Uday Hussein, one of Saddam’s sons (Dezmond Gilla); his sister Hadia (Sienna Aczon); and a leper woman (Zina Torab Zadeh).
Not for the faint of heart, the play includes numerous scenes of violence and much foul language, all in keeping with the time and place in which the action is set. By contrast there are also some deeply philosophical monologues – particularly those uttered by the ghost of the tiger. Yes, Virginia, there are ghosts in this play, and their reflections on the meaning of life are often moving and spiritual.
Without exception the actors deliver convincing and dynamic performances. Casting an English-speaking man as the Tiger was, of course, the playwright’s choice. Saul Rollason seems to have absorbed tiger DNA for his performance as he paces and bares his teeth, his head lolling side-to-side while delivering lines in a deep bass voice.
Maseeh Ganjali projects his anxiety as a translator as well as his yearning for his former occupation as a peaceful gardener, creator of beautiful animal topiary at the palace.
The soldiers, Allen and Light, show the impact such fighting can have on a warrior and are frighteningly convincing in their portrayals.
Petite Sienna Aczon, as the younger sister of Musa, the translator, offers the sole moments of joy and youth through her innocence and naivete.
Dezmond Gilla, though struggling to keep his accent as Hussein’s son Uday, is convincingly cruel.and overpowering.
If I had to name the leading character in this play, I would say it is War, the thing that destroys everyone and everything in its wake. For a sobering and powerful glimpse of only a few of its casualities, look no further than Ong King Center.
With only three performances remaining (Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 3:30), I would urge any serious theatre-goer to order tickets now. Go to Brown Paper Tickets to make your reservation.
EPOCH’s season includes the following must-see plays:
Intimate Apparel by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage
February 2-4 and 8-11
Yellow Face by Tony Award-winning David Henry Hwang
March 30-April 1, April 5-8
Aubergine by Julia Cho
May 18-20 and 24-27
By Carol Egan, community reviewer
Formerly the dance critic on the Honolulu Advertiser, she also has written articles and reviews for national, regional and local magazines and papers on the Mainland. Although her critical writing is mostly about dance, she is a passionate theatre-goer and tries to see all the offerings presented by Honolulu’s many theatres.