From left

From left

‘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.orgartsBengal Tiger at the Baghdad ZooRajiv JosephSan Francisco Playhouse

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Dave Hodges, pastor at Zide Door, the Church of Entheogenic Plants that include marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, holds some psychedelic mushrooms inside the Oakland church on Friday, July 22, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Psychedelic spirituality: Inside a growing Bay Area religious movement

‘They are guiding us into something ineffable’

San Francisco Police stand guard outside the Mission Police Station during a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Fired: California bill aims to decertify police for serious misconduct

By Robert Lewis CalMatters On a Wednesday afternoon in April 2018, Gardena… Continue reading

The Giants and Dodgers face each other again following a May series the Dodgers swept; Dodgers shortstop Gavin Lux caught stealing by Giants second baseman Donovan Solano at Oracle Park on May 23 is pictured. 
Chris Victorio/
Special to The Examiner
Giants vs. Dodgers: What you need to know before this week’s huge series

By Chris Haft Special to The Examiner That grinding noise you’ll hear… Continue reading

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that state employees and health care workers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing and wear masks. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters)
California orders vaccine or testing for health care workers, state employees

By Ana B. Ibarra CalMatters Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases and… Continue reading

Jeremy Kahn and Monica Ho are excellent in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer,” being presented live and online. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)
Touching relationship at heart of ‘Song of Summer’

Lighthearted SF Playhouse show ‘feels right for this moment’

Most Read