I guess I should start with a disclaimer and admit that I don’t really think that Rajiv Joseph is that great of a playwright. He’s good with dialogue, to be sure, and there is definitely some grit and substance to his work, but to me, his plays ultimately fall flat.

Having seen two of his shows recently, Gruesome Playground Injuries by Azeotrope and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Washington Ensemble Theatre, I can only conclude that the former is underdeveloped, while the latter is overdeveloped; the first didn’t give enough, while the last didn’t know when to stop giving. Both had the makings of riveting theatre, but both ultimately left me feeling underwhelmed.

Let’s take the latest production of BTatBZ, which opened this past weekend at WET. I had much anticipation for this show. I, generally, like the work done by the WET ensemble, and feel that they are one of the best small theaters in town. They tend to specialize in edgy, quirky, progressive plays that push the theatrical envelope — something I, certainly, appreciate!

I was also excited to see this play by RJ, which had starred Robin Williams in its Broadway production, and which had been nominated for a Pulitzer prize in 2010.  Plus, this particular production by WET starred one of my absolutely favorite Seattle actors, Ryan Higgins, and also featured Ali El-Gasseir whom I also respect. So, needless to say, my expectations were pretty high.

Now, before I go on, let me say that, as a general rule, I do not like to read anything about a show before I go see it. I prefer to experience it in its rawness, with no preconceived ideas about what its about or what will take place. So aside from the few facts I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I knew nothing else about BTatBZ.

Walking into the house of the theatre, I took my seat and waited for the play to begin. Of course, the show had already begun in ways since there was a man, who turned out to be the tiger (played by Mike Dooly), already on stage. (This is a technique WET has been using a lot lately — having characters already in place as the audience enters).

My first reaction was that the set, designed by Tommer Peterson, seemed a bit plain. Of course, I realize that WET is a tiny space and that there is only so much that can be done in terms of set design, but to their credit, I have seen them do some amazing transformations of that space, even with its confining parameters. And to be clear, I’m not saying the set was bad, it just didn’t have that level of spectacularity that I had hoped for, and which seems to be demanded by the play itself, given its large scope and broad range of locales for which it calls.

So, in terms of set design, I’ll give it one thumb up, one thumb down.

But now, to the heart of the matter: the actors. By and large, the cast was relatively strong. Higgins, who played the American soldier “Kev,” was definitely on his game as usual, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best role he has ever played. He was so much better in the Schmee’s Live! From the Last Night of My Life and Strawshop’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Perhaps it was just due to the nature of this role, but I wasn’t as moved by him as in the past — although he was still quite good.

His army buddy, “Tom,” (played by Jonathan Crimeni) was standard in his portrayal of the opportunistic soldier who tries to capitalize on all of the death and destruction around him. He was believable in his stoicism and gave a heart-wrenching performance in his final scene.

Erwin Galan, who plays the Iraqi translator, “Musa,” also did a fine job in his role. He had a certain innocence, intelligence, and sincerity about him that was engaging and endearing.

But the best performance by far was that of Ali El-Gasseir in his role as Saddam Hussein’s diabolically evil eldest son, “Uday.”  I actually didn’t realize it was El-Gasseir playing the role until I looked more closely at the cast list during intermission. He was both funny and scary all at once, and did a wonderful job capturing the despotic Middle Eastern autocrat who had a fondness for brutally raping women and mindlessly and indiscriminately torturing and killing others — a true modern day Caligula. I suspect El-Gasseir will be receiving a nomination for best supporting actor for his work in this show.

As for Mike Dooly’s performance as the tiger, I wasn’t as impressed. He was pretty stiff in his body — there was nothing that said “tiger” about him. And the humor, which is apparently called for in the role, just didn’t strike me as funny. I’m not saying he was terrible, I just felt ambivalent toward him. And since the play gets its name from this character, I don’t think we should be left with a feeling of ambivalence.

But all in all, the talent was there among the cast, crew, and designers, but what wasn’t there was the writing, as I mentioned before. There were some good moments, some substantive moments, some beautiful and terrifying moments, but there were also a lot of “preachy” moments, clichéd moments, and unnecessary moments. And the biggest problem is that the playwright just didn’t know when to quit. There were so many times toward the end of the play when it could have ended and everything would have been beautiful. But instead, RJ just kept going on and on and on and on and on. The last 10-15 minutes of the show were completely unnecessary. And given how hot it was in that tiny theatre by the end of the 2 1/2 hour run, I started feeling like I WAS in the Iraq war: a never ending hell!

And that leads me to the final issue I have with this play: it is just too big for its own good, and its definitely too big for the tiny space of WET. They did a good job with what they had and the resources at their disposal, but they can only be as good as the material with which they are working, and to me, this play just isn’t that interesting or profound. And I cannot for the life of me figure out why it was ever nominated for a Pulitzer!

So kudos to WET, but rotten tomatoes to Rajiv Joseph!

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs through October 7 at Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave E. For tickets or more info, call 206-325-5105 or visit http://www.washingtonensemble.org


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