Julie Stalmer 7:15 p.m., June 25
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Ion Theatre (part one)
In Rajiv Joseph's amazing drama, "God's Garden" isn't Eden — or is it?
According to the Bible, four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates, joined at the Garden of Eden. Though there are as many possible sites as for Atlantis, one theory, based on recent LANDSTAT satellites, locates the confluence near the head of the Persian Gulf in Iraq. Two "fossil rivers" intersect with the others.
During both Gulf Wars, American soldiers often justified their presence by claiming that "God wants the Garden of Eden back."
In Bengal Tiger, "God's Garden" is a patch of green at the palace of Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of Saddam.
Uday became legendary for ad lib'd atrocities: firing an Uzi to liven up a party; caning soccer players and torturing Iraqi Olympian athletes for not performing well; stabbing his fathers food-taster to death, with an electric carving knife, during a gala honoring - and in front of - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's wife, Suzanne.
In the play, the garden in the compound doesn't jibe with Uday's legend. Musa, who now translates for the Americans, sculpted thick shrubs into animals. It's an eerie topiary, a smidgen of peace amid war zones, home-made incendiary devices, rape, pillage, Gulf War Syndrome, and life not worth a spec.
Musa was the creator, but in Tiger is he also THE Creator? Or is it that garrulous tiger, shot in the Baghdad Zoo for chomping off the hand of a threatening G.I.? The tiger's ghost floats around the city bombarded with guilt over being a predator.
"Americans," he says, always think that when they die, they go away." Instead he - and others to follow - become specters with all the mental qualities they lacked when alive: the tiger develops a nagging conscience; Kev, a novice fighting machine, becomes intelligent.
It's almost as if they've eaten from the Tree of Good and Evil: once dead, they gain knowledge but lose God. Adam and Eve fell from Eden. According to the playwright, the afterlife's an even greater Fall: you haunt the living, but your guilt may haunt you for eternity.
"It's alarming this life after death," says the tiger. "The fact is, tigers are athiests. All of us. Unabashed. Heaven and hell? Those are just metaphorical constructs that represent 'hungry' and 'not hungry.' Which is to say, why am I still kicking around?"
Then he adds: "When an atheist finds himself walking around after death, he's got some serious rethinking to do."
William Golding said he wrote The Lord of the Flies as an experiment to see what young men would do if isolated on an island. They become savages. In some ways Bengal Tiger's an update with older young men.
The playwright creates an anarchy zone where nothing is predictable, not even his next scene (the only predictability about them: each will be as, if not more, bizarre than the last). Like Golding's characters, in Iraq Joseph's return - or Fall, if you will - back to their animal natures.
More next time.
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest, playing through June 1.
More like this:
- Three decades of San Diego theater — Feb. 12, 2014
- Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, Ion Theatre (Part two) — May 21, 2013
- Grey Gardens at Ion Theatre — April 1, 2013
- Review: The Devil's Double — Aug. 5, 2011
- Your "Extremely Tenuously Connected to the Cars 2 Premiere" Post of the Day — June 23, 2011