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THEATER REVIEW: ion’s “Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo”

“When I get hungry, I get stupid,” says the titular Tiger (Ron Choularton), by way of explanation for his death.

Death itself, the senselessness destruction of war and the meaning of “tigerness” are among the topics explored by the Tiger’s ghost, who will spend the rest of the evening as narrator and resident philosopher in Rajiv Joseph’s extraordinary play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” on the boards through June 1 at ion theatre. I advise you to get your tickets now.

Two American soldiers, a local interpreter, the ghost of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday (carrying the head of his brother Qusay) and two local women also figure in this most unusual and utterly riveting play.

It’s 2003, we are in occupied Baghdad, and Iraq war veteran Tom (Jake Rosko) and newcomer Kev (Evan Kendig) are guarding the local zoo, a detail that rankles trigger-happy newbie Kev: “I wanna see me some action, not hang around no ghetto-ass zoo with my thumb up my ass.” Conversation turns to the gold-plated pistol belonging to Saddam’s son Uday, which Tom looted from Saddam’s palace.

Kev gets his action when Tom foolishly sticks his hand in the tiger’s cage, where it becomes a kitty snack. Kev grabs the golden gun and kills the cat; he will be haunted by Tiger’s ghost throughout the rest of the play.

Inspired by an Associated Press item reporting that an American soldier had killed a tiger in the Baghdad zoo that had bitten off the finger of a drunken soldier trying to feed it, Joseph has fashioned a brilliant philosophical and surreal ghost story about reality and corruption, war and greed and the ghosts that haunt us.

Local interpreter Musa (Brian Abraham), formerly Uday’s gardener, has his own ghosts to deal with: Uday (Claudio Raygoza), out of place in a fancy suit and gaudy gold necklace – the face of smiling depravity; and Musa’s little sister Hadia (Linda Permenter), who will experience that depravity.

The playwright’s genius is the way he unites the comic and the serious and makes us question why we do what we do. Even the seen-it-all Tiger (who has assured us that all tigers are atheists) is forced by circumstance to ponder: “When an atheist finds himself walking around after death, he’s got some serious re-evaluating to do.”

Choularton is terrific as the Dante-savvy Tiger – wry and profane, with a British accent and reverence for none, he’s the perfect glue holding this play together.

Abraham gives a moving interpretation of Musa, the interpreter trying to survive but pushed to question his decision to work for the American occupiers.

Rosko, the cocky veteran and Kendig, the newbie, are clearly in over their heads in this questionable operation, but compelling characters nonetheless.

You’ll hate Raygoza’s Uday as soon as he walks onstage – unctuous and arrogant, he’s the epitome of the spoiled-brat son of power who delights in wielding it. Yet even Uday raises ethical questions that will make you think. It’s a spot-on interpretation.

Parmenter (as both Hadia and a prostitute) and Olivia Ruiz (as an Iraqi woman) are both convincing and heartbreaking (and all the more impressive because they have to speak Arabic).

I have seen this play both at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It works better in the small ion space than at either of the others. This is a play in which every word, expression and gesture counts, and ion gives us the best opportunity to see this piece at its best.

Congratulations to ion’s tech team as well. The set (by Brian Refern), costumes (by Courtney Fox Smith), lighting (Karin Filijan) and sound (Melanie Chen) are top-notch.

Kudos also to topiary artist S. Todd Muffatti and to Raida Fahmi and Ammar Ramzi for their work on the Arabic lines and as cultural consultants.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is a rare theatrical experience. Don’t miss it.

The details

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” plays through June 1 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.