There are moments in Rorschach Theatre's "A Tale of a Tiger" when you feel less like a member of an audience than a student in a class. While all plays seek to engage their audiences, "Tiger's" director and performer, Ami Dayan, tries to accomplish this quite literally, delivering Dario Fo's political allegory with the skill of an animated lecturer as he makes eye contact with theatergoers, crouches before them, asks questions and -- gulp -- waits for answers.
At one point late in the performance, after Dayan has handed out streams of white cloth for a few first-row audience members to hang on to, he teases about the blank-stare response to yet another of his queries. "Oh, I thought we established this already: There's no wall here. You're holding stuff I just gave you!" (In fairness, the questions are more unexpected than difficult.)
Dayan's relaxed and slightly silly stage presence is an extra spoonful of sugar in Fo's unexpectedly humorous monologue.
Based on a Chinese folk tale with roots in Indian myth, "Tiger's" story about a wounded soldier in Mao Zedong's army initially promises a rather serious night of drama: The playbill describes Act 1 as "a parable for healing, reconciliation and growth," while Act 2 uses Fo's original ending as a brief coda, "a political outcry for revolution by the people against a leadership that misrepresents them morally" -- not exactly themes you'd expect to be mined for laughs.
But when Dayan, shortly after stepping onto the small Casa del Pueblo stage in loose khaki clothes and with weapons on his back, describes his trek with Mao's other weary soldiers by mentioning their gastrointestinal distress, you realize that "Tiger's" tone won't exactly be somber.
Dayan's soldier loses contact with his brigade after a leg wound turns gangrenous and he's left for dead. A violent rainstorm forces him to seek shelter in a cave, which is subsequently discovered -- in a moment nicely underscored by Justin Thomas's dramatic lighting -- by a lactating tigress and her cub. Naturally, the soldier is at first terrified -- "I want to die of gangrene!" he whines -- but when the water-logged cub won't nurse, the bursting mother tiger looks to the soldier and orders him in "Tigerese" to start feeding.
And she won't let him stop: In a scene that's both funny and a bit squirm-inducing, Dayan imitates his nipple-pinching feasts while marveling about the tiger's "tittery" of teats.
The tiger, in turn, cleans and heals the soldier's wound, and over the subsequent days they form a little family, with the soldier cooking the kills the animals bring back to the cave and occasionally getting perturbed when mother and son are gone for too long. When the soldier starts to tire of this arrangement -- feeling a bit put upon as the one expected to wait around the cave and cook -- he finds his way to a village, where he preaches the healing powers of tiger saliva.
It's here where "Tiger" hits a fork in the road, delivering one ending in Act 1 and a different one in Act 2. As Dayan explains in the second act -- which he describes as being akin to DVD extras -- when the Israeli American performer first read Fo's script in 1993, he was unwilling to deliver its strong political message in his volatile homeland and asked the Italian playwright for a less combustive rewrite.
For all its playfulness, however, Dayan does steer "A Tale of a Tiger" back to serious matters, turning an at first goofy exercise of teaching audience members to roar into call-and-response therapy for "anything that needs healing," with suggestions during the press night performance that included Russia, 9/11 victims and youth in Washington. He also urges a roar from "all who wish there was somebody to vote for November 2."
Dayan may not want to incite revolution, but he's apparently no longer afraid of being political.
A Tale of a Tiger, by Dario Fo. Directed and performed by Ami Dayan. Set and costumes, Miki Ben-Cnaan; lighting, Justin Thomas; composer, Ran Bagno; choreography, Robert Davidson. Approximately two hours. Through Oct. 3 at Calvary Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or 202-452-5538.