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‘Bengal Tiger’ weaves Iraq tale

Wonders abound in Rajiv Joseph’s drama “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a Broadway hit that inaugurates San Francisco Playhouse’s 10th season.

The titular tiger, a solitary, philosophical fellow, is at first trapped in his cage. The zoo has been partially destroyed, and the lions have already escaped.

Two bored Marines stand guard: the dim-witted, swaggering Kev (Craig Marker) and the dominant, tougher Tom (Gabriel Marin). Both actors are convincing in increasingly complex portrayals. When Tom sticks a piece of beef jerky through the bars of the cage, the tiger — in a wry, nicely understated performance by a gray-bearded Will Marchetti — naturally enough bites his hand off.

Loose-cannon Kev shoots the tiger — who spends the rest of the play lurking about as a ghost, haunting the unnerved Kev and wondering why he still exists and whether his propensity for eating the weak is a moral failing or simply a decree of nature. All tigers, he tells us, are atheists, but he’s starting to have doubts.

Joseph, whose plays “The North Pool” and “Animals Out of Paper” have both been seen hereabouts, proves once again to be the most imaginative and unpredictable of playwrights. “Bengal Tiger” abounds with both wit and tragedy.

As the play progresses, people die and return to haunt the living in various ways, both benign and malignant.

“This place is lousy with ghosts,” the tiger remarks at the beginning of Act 2. And each lifelike spirit — and that includes Saddam Hussein’s murdered son (Pomme Koch) and the sister (Livia Demarchi) of erstwhile gardener-extraordinaire-turned-Arabic-translator Musa (Kuros Charney) — has a personal mission.

The existential questions that Joseph poses, and his unique, fractured perspective on the war in Iraq and how it affects both the Americans and the Iraqis, are intriguing enough.

But the way he weaves in certain symbolic elements — for example, a garden of animal-shaped topiary (suspended from the ceiling in Ben Schmidt’s design), and the gold revolver and toilet seat Tom has captured as spoils of war — enrich the play’s texture immeasurably.

Other characters — including an Iraqi prostitute (Demarchi again) and an almost faceless leper (Sarita Ocon) — also add complexity and texture to the mix, as does the intermittent dialogue in Arabic.

Bill English directs his excellent cast with great sensitivity, faltering only in that he hasn’t found an effectively dramatic way to stage the tiger’s restless meanderings. Still, the production casts a magical spell.

REVIEW

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse

Where: 450 Post St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 16

Tickets: $30 to $100

Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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