The ghosts of broken men walk the broken streets of a ravaged Iraq in Rajiv Josephs Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a play that defies definition as a comedy or drama, realism or surrealism. It makes its own kind of twisted sense, and perhaps thats the American playwrights point: Searching for traditional order or meaning in a meaningless war drives you crazy. (Hold back your angry e-mails, dissenters: In Josephs view, the Iraq War was definitely meaningless.)
Its not much of a spoiler to say the title character quickly becomes a philosophic phantom himself. As servicemen Kev (J.R. Jones) and Tom (Eric Blake) guard the zoo from attack in 2003, the tiger (Mike Harris) muses on the stupidity of the lions, which burst from their bombed enclosure and were gunned down on the streets. But when Tom sticks his hand into the cage, the tiger bites it off, and Kev kills him.
From there, Joseph intertwines visions and nightmares of the living and speeches by the dead. Mortality can bring enlightenment or angst; the ghosts pass beyond physical pain but not beyond the frustration of asking God questions that get no answers. Only the executed Uday Hussein (Michael Simmons), son of Saddam and an infamous torturer himself, seems at ease in this limbo; he mocks Musa (Rigo Nova), his former gardener and now a translator for the Americans, for failing to emulate Udays cruel selfishness.
Harris and Simmons co-directed and hit upon a simple solution for the scripts many moods: Theyre all treated as equally real. (The ghosts are more like poltergeists: They smoke cigars, pick up pistols, smack people.) This keeps us slightly off-balance, which Id guess Joseph wants. It means the talkative tiger and smirking Uday and disoriented soldiers stay on the same plane, and we can believe in all of them.
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre specializes in experiential theater and pulls that off with special effectiveness here. The overlapping layers of sound and sparse music blend well. Dee Blackburns aptly drab set consists of cracked paving on the floor and the remnants of a ruined topiary garden, where the vast plants shaped as animals have died. Even the makeup on a leper in one brief scene earns a gasp.
CAST also likes to blend valuable veterans with appealing actors who seldom work there, if anywhere around these parts. That approach, too, pays large dividends.
Harris and Jones have enlivened other CAST shows, and Simmons sometimes works in his own productions. But Blake apparently hasnt done Charlotte theater for years, Nova is new to me, and Megan Santiago (who has a small but crucial role as Musas sister) has done only one staged reading locally. Together, they have found a way to get inside this perplexing, thought-provoking play and to bring us inside it, too.