Tyger, Tyger, burning bright …
“In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy the village.”
If you’re old enough to remember news coverage of the Vietnam War, you’ve probably heard this famous quote (or misquote). Supposedly, a U.S. Army major said it, explaining that the village of Ben Tre had been bombed to drive out the Vietcong. The bombing took place despite the presence of many civilians – in the twisted logic of war, “protecting” the village from control by the enemy meant destruction and death for its residents.
Roughly 35 years later, in Iraq, the logic of war was no less confusing. As portrayed in EPOCH’s production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, the U.S.-led effort to protect freedom and democracy again led to destruction, misery and death in the area being “saved” from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The play tells the story from the perspective of a tiger in the Baghdad zoo, played by Saul Rollason. Rollason does a superb job, handling the challenge of playing a hungry carnivore who is also a philosopher. He moves smoothly back and forth from narrator to participant in the action, and although he’s playing a non-human character, he creates a real and believable personality.
Javonta Light as Kev, and Reb Allen as Tom, are two U.S. soldiers trying to stay alive. They have essentially given up on understanding their “mission” in Iraq. Tom, the older and smarter of the two, is focused on taking home a golden gun that belonged to Uday Hussein (played by Dezmond Gilla), to give himself a financial start when he gets back. Kev, younger and more vulnerable, gradually disintegrates under the stress of their situation.
Maseeh Ganjali is Musa, an interpreter assigned to work with the American soldiers. Ganjali, who also co-directed the show (with Edo Natasha) takes on a major challenge – co-directing while also playing a very complex character – but he succeeds brilliantly. All of the actors do a great job, but even among an excellent cast, Ganjali and Rollason deserve special mention.
Sienna Aczon plays both Musa’s innocent young sister and a cynical, suspicious prostitute, handling both roles well. Zina Torab Zadeh also does double duty, as a woman whose home is invaded by the soldiers, and as a leper who has basically nothing but tries to help Tom when he is shot.
The cast deserves special credit for learning many lines in Arabic. I can only assume that their pronunciation is accurate, but the lines are fluent, spoken expressively, and sound authentic. There was no opening-night hesitation; everyone spoke with confidence. The staging, sound and lighting all work well, supporting the action without being distracting.
On the negative side, it does feel a little long, and the message – that war is confusing and destructive – seems to be hammered home multiple times.
Overall, if you enjoy seeing serious theatre done well, this is definitely a show you should see. Get to the Ong King Arts Center by November 19.
Written by Ron Heller