For his wholly original black comedy, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” playwright Rajiv Joseph comes up with what seems a fittingly disquieting metaphor for the anguishing entanglements of the American invasion of Iraq. In a cage in the bombed-out zoo of the country’s capital paces the last surviving carnivore, a tiger hunkered down and wondering how in heaven’s name he has wound up trapped behind hostile lines, thousands of miles from home.
“I’m the biggest predatory cat in the world!” the frustrated animal murmurs, in the guise of bearded actor Eric Hissom. In the resonant treatment by director Jeremy Skidmore for Round House Theatre, the big cat exerts no more lasting dominion over the landscape than do the strafed bestial topiaries left over from the decadent reign of Saddam Hussein. The legacy of this cantankerous creature, in fact, amounts chiefly to a trail of wanton mutilation: The tiger chomps off the extremities of soldiers foolish enough to put their hands through the bars of his cage.
Joseph, a Pulitzer finalist in 2010 for this work alongside Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and a writer on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” takes the chaos of Iraq circa 2003 and, Ionesco-style, spins it into an anthropomorphic absurdist fable. Hissom, who portrayed Folger Theatre’s Cyrano last year, makes for a persuasively profane and earthy beast in captivity, in the role Robin Williams played in the recent Broadway version.
The impressive ensemble Skidmore builds around Hissom ensures that the play’s hallucinogenic twists, its mixing of real and imagined people, remain credibly anchored. The achievement of Danny Gavigan and Felipe Cabezas, playing U.S. Marines, and Pomme Koch and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, as, respectively, Saddam’s son Uday and his former gardener, Musa, is to populate this “Zoo” with figures who compellingly embody the contradictions of a onetime cradle of civilization where the laws of the jungle now hold sway. (Playing various Iraqi women, Salma Shaw and Nadia Mahdi offer suitably sympathetic turns.)
Skidmore and his design team, especially set designer Tony Cisek, lighting designer Andrew Cissna and sound designer Eric Shimelonis, effectively conjure the shattered psyche of the city. The quiet music of birdsong, ringing through an arcade of crumbling arches, conveys a dirge-like melody of terminal decay. No one in the playwright’s zoo, however, departs Baghdad: The soldiers, the tiger, even Uday return after death, as omniscient ghosts to carry on a continuing dialogue with the living, or to wonder at a God who would countenance the destruction of a people and such shapeless, meaningless suffering.
Plotting is not Joseph’s strong suit. “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” itself can feel a little shapeless as it wends its way through the irony-laden experiences of characters such as Gavigan’s Tom, who after losing a hand returns to Iraq in search of the gold-plated toilet seat he pilfered from one of Saddam’s palaces. (“Zoo” is rife with images of mangled bodies, whether in the form of wounded soldiers or lepers or damaged topiaries.) But what the play lacks in forward thrust it makes up for in the lyrically unsettling mosaic it vividly assembles.
Admirably, Skidmore never demurs from portrayals of some of Joseph’s most disturbing images, such as when Cabezas’s Kev makes a ghastly mess of his own act of penitence. Nor does the work spare you a jolting dose of horror, as Koch’s eerily feral embodiment of Uday offers up, when the character tortures Musa with a description of his monstrous defilement and murder of a child. At such moments “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” reminds you that to call a despicable member of our species an “animal” is an insult to animals.
By Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Sets, Tony Cisek; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Andrew Cissna; composer and sound, Eric Shimelonis; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; dialects, Jennifer Mendenhall. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Sept. 30 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.