Park’s ferocious feline powers ‘Bengal Tiger’

Rick Park as The Tiger in Company One’s production of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Liza Voll Photography

BOSTON — Death and destruction filled the streets of Baghdad immediately after the American invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Among the victims: the animals that inhabited the Baghdad Zoo. Only 35 animals of the original 670 survived, with many escaping from the zoo during the chaos and roaming wild throughout the city, some finding an untimely end from artillery fire.

It is against that backdrop that playwright Rajiv Joseph begins “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a Company One production performed now through Nov. 17 at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts

A Bengal tiger, two American soldiers, an Iraqi translator, and the sons of Hussein are caught up in a chain of violence and death with events that reach beyond the grave.

Amidst the chaos that followed the Iraq invasion, those caring for the animals at the Baghdad Zoo have long since fled. Two American Marines named Tom ( Ray Ramirez) and Kev (Michael Knowlton) have been assigned to guard the Bengal tiger, played by Rick Park.

Tom, he reveals, was part of the force that invaded and looted a Hussein family palace, coming away with a gold-plated pistol he has on him and a solid-gold toilet seat he has stashed away. He shows off the pistol to Kev.

The animal is hungry and agitated, and Tom foolishly provokes it. The tiger lashes out and devours his right hand. Kev uses the golden gun to kill the animal.

That’s the end of the tiger, or is it? Not so. The animal finds itself just one of many spirits wandering the streets of the city after their deaths. The shooting of the tiger — just one incident in a huge war — will have ripple effects that will be felt far down the line.

The largest predatory cat in the world wonders how and why he is still walking around. “When an aetheist finds himself walking around after death, he has some serious reevaluating to do.”

He haunts his killer, Kev, who soon finds himself in a cycle of despair and self-destruction, until he too, becomes a spirit walking the streets of Baghdad, this time reminding Tom — who has returned from America with a new prosthetic hand in seek of his golden booty — of the part he played in the death of both the tiger and the soldier.

Director Shawn LaCount coaxes some soulful performances out of his cast, none moreso than Park as the barefoot, brooding tiger of the title. He is a hulking, skulking feline, an imposing physical presence who ruminates about the stupidity of lions and other animals who sought their freedom, only to be gunned by soldiers in the streets.

He hurls profane bon mots at his captors as he ponders life and his regrets. A predator with a conscience? Indeed. He can’t be blamed for doing what comes naturally for a tiger, but there is that matter of the two small children who wandered into his path…

Costume designer Lara DeBruijn has had the good sense to merely suggest the tiger’s physical presence, relying on Park’s imagination and acting skills to fill the gap.

The streets, its turns out, are filled with ghosts , including a one-eyed girl who has been blown to up by a bomb.

Hallie Friedman, Ray Ramirez and Michael Dawn Singh in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Liza Voll Phootgraphy

There are other victims trapped in the circle. Uday Hussein’s former gardener, Musa (Michael Dawn Singh), who is now working as a a translator for the Americans, is routinely abused by the Americans he works for. Uday, malodorously played by Mason Sand, taunts him from beyond the grave about a secret the two share, the horrendous rape and murder of Musa’s sister Hadia (Hallie Freidman).

“Bengal Tiger” is intense and not for the squeamish. There are some harrowing scenes of violence and self-destruction. It isn’t always easy to follow and is at times dark and bleak, at other times uplifting and transcendent.

As for where it’s all going, playwright Joseph in an interview admits the ending really doesn’t resolve anything or tie things up, leaving it up to the theater-goer to ponder the events and the wreckage left behind, and what really happens when we finally shed our mortal coil.

The Company One production of Rajiv Joseph‘s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Directed by Shawn LaCount. At the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 17. Tix/info http://www.companyone.org

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