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The British playwright David Hare is fond of calling Stuff Happens, his 2004 drama about the invasion of Iraq, whose dialogue he drew in part from news accounts, “a history play.” Last staged locally at Olney Theatre Center, Stuff Happens features an international lineup of politicos—Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, Dominique de Villepin—sitting around and talking about war. It had its American premiere at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group in 2005. Four years later, the same company staged the world premiere of another play about the U.S. invasion of Iraq: Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Like Hare, Joseph based his story on facts. The biggest difference is that in Bengal Tiger, stuff happens.
Stuff like firefights and suicides and bloody betrayals. The stuff that happens to the people doing the fighting rather than the ones talking about it. That isn’t to denigrate Hare’s herculean verbosity—but even a good production of Stuff Happens has a limited, wonky reach. Bengal Tiger, on the other hand, is a play for the proletariat, and this well-acted, well-designed Round House production is a gift for anyone willing to spend two hours thinking about recent history.
As the show opens, the initial glory of Operation Iraqi Freedom is fading, and the U.S. Marines who raided Saddam Hussein’s palaces have been demoted to zoo duty. A pride of lions recently escaped, so the troops have to keep the remaining mangy animals behind bars. In the throes of stupid sympathy, one marine slips a tiger a Slim Jim and loses his hand. A round of shots is fired onstage—and that’s where the facts stop and the fiction begins. Smoke clears, and a stuffed tiger is keeled over in the cage. But outside the bars is Eric Hissom, the walking, talking, philosophizing ghost of the big cat.
On Broadway, Robin Williams played the tiger, and it was the best of all possible stunt-castings: A movie star lured commercial theatergoers into seeing a profoundly moving play that has funny lines but is not a comedy. There are many flashes of theatrical brilliance in Joseph’s script, but nothing tops the talking tiger that is the play’s moral center. At one point he confesses to once devouring children. “Am I cruel?” he asks. “I was just looking for lunch.”
Soldiers at war also instinctively go looking for prey, but unlike animals, humans are haunted by their consciences. There’s lots of gruesome action in Bengal Tiger, both onstage and off, but the intensity comes from watching the characters grapple with the consequences. A trio of local actors—Danny Gavigan, Felipe Cabezas, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh—portray the troops and their interpreter. It would be easy for urbane D.C. audiences to be put off by the brash, redneck Marines. But Joseph makes them just compassionate enough, and the Iraqi characters just conflicted enough, that theatergoers are compelled to set any politically grounded expectations aside.
That wasn’t true of Stuff Happens, a play that preached to the of-course-there-were-no-weapons-of-mass-destruction choir. Joseph may have based his play on one news story rather than stacks of documents, but leaving Bengal Tiger, you’ll marvel at how his play so acutely portrays the horrors of war through the fog of imaginative fiction.