Underrated and Under-appreciated: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Okay, this week’s underrated is going to be a little different. Instead of recommending a movie to watch again, I’m going to recommend a play. Which, is going to be difficult, since you can’t readily see the play on Broadway anymore. This piece will also focus a bit more on the actor who plays the Tiger than it will explaining just how this play is underrated, but believe me this is an underrated gem. So, I’m very sorry you can’t experience this play the same way I did, but I can explain why I’m doing this.

As you may have heard on Monday the world discovered that Robin Williams committed suicide. Since then everyone has been memorializing him, talking about why he died, and discussing his life and work.

So I sat down, and I thought about all the Robin Williams movies I’ve watched, all the ones I haven’t, and all the ones people say are just plain bad. There were lists circulating left and right about his most underrated performances. And I read them. I agreed with some of them. Others I hadn’t heard of before. But every time I thought about Robin Williams, the performance that stuck out the most to me was one that me and only a few thousand other people got to see. It was his titular role in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

(As always, there are spoilers after the cut)

Now, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, is the first Broadway play to tackle the war in Iraq that began in 2001. The plot is a bit murky, only because the play isn’t really about the plot, it’s about understanding and dealing with the war in Iraq. Honestly, my parents and I only saw it because Robin Williams was the star, but having said that it was still one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

The play is told through this tiger, who very early on is shot and dies. He remains on stage as a ghost for the rest of the play, haunting one of the other characters. The character that shot him, Kev. The Tiger also travels through Baghdad viewing the carnage left behind and pondering life’s eternal questions. While also snakily talking about people who can’t see or hear him. Kev and his partner, Tom (whose hand is bitten off by the Tiger) spend the play going from their base camp, to a hospital, to Uday Hussein’s house. There are a few other characters, Musa, Hussein’s former gardner, and the ghost of Uday Hussein.

But the plot isn’t the important part, it’s the monologues, and actions these characters have in response to what they’re doing and seeing in Baghdad, that’s the important part. The Tiger wanders the zoo, wanders Baghdad, and wanders into these other characters lives, trying desperately to get them to hear his words and not his roars.

I think the best summation of the play was given by Patrick Healy of the New York Times when the play debuted on Broadway:

“Bengal Tiger,” a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama, portrays the occupation with a mix of harsh realism and surrealist philosophizing. Iraqi characters speak in Arabic, guns are the main props, explosions pass for background music. Yet the play is also largely populated by ghosts, starting with that tiger, played by Mr. Williams in his Broadway acting debut. Slaughtered in the first scene, the tiger spends the play profanely raging against God and nagging the living and the dead to help him make sense of war-torn humanity.

The questions, and issues the play tackles are big, earth-shaking issues. The soldier who shoots the tiger, upon seeing it again, freaks out and is put in the hospital ward to relax. It’s a depiction of PTSD, something that thousands of men and women coming home from war (and still in war) struggle with daily. The Tiger pleads for an answer to why he’s a ghost, why he didn’t turn into dust like the rest of the animals when they died? It also connects him with the human characters, and the human characters connect with his ghost, and Uday Hussein’s ghost, and the many other different pieces of the war torn puzzle.

What I’m trying to say, is the play is very underrated because it tackles the huge issues, effects, and aftermath of war, all while giving you this sarcastic, atheist, tiger as your point of origin. It delves into more philosophy than it does dialogue, but it works. It knows that’s what the purpose is, not to entertain, but to enlighten. It’s a play where you’re meant to walk out and ask the person next to you if they understand any of it. And it’s also completely fine for that answer to be no. It’s not nearly as existential and post-modern as a Waiting for Godot, but it’s certainly a few steps above Mamma Mia in the broadway chain of mental anguish.

Really though, Robin Williams stole the show. He was cast as the title character and thus had every right to steal the show, but damn did he do it well. His Tiger had humor, compassion, and anger. He conveyed those questions everyone asks themselves about life, and why we’re all on this giant spinning rock, so well that frequently you forgot he was supposed to be playing a tiger. He still had that slightly manic Robin Williams charm that you see breaking out in Mrs. Doubtfire, or at the end of Hook. But he also kept his composure and grappled with these intense questions and issues with real aplomb.

So here’s my mini tribute to the great Robin Williams. I want to remind everyone that he brought a lot of happiness and laughter into the world (and no one will ever take that away) but he also had the capability to make us stop and think for a moment about why we’re here, and why some of us get more of a chance than others.

Take a moment, watch the clip I’ve linked to here, and I sincerely hope that one day this play is performed on Broadway for more than just a limited engagement.

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