Existentialism gets played for laughs (sort of) in ‘Penelope,’ ‘Bengal Tiger’
I had pretty much assumed the local supply of severed limbs had been exhausted by the prop department for A Behanding in Spokane, but Theatre Three was able to turn up a spare for their regional debut, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. It says something about our collective mood that two shows open within a week of each other featuring maiming; add to them Penelope — a sort of twist on No Exit via Greek mythology — and you have a 2013 already set up to explode with despair. Thank goodness some musicals are just on the horizon.
Thank goodness also that this trio of dark comedies do what they do as well as they do it. None are easy sells to audiences: In Bengal Tiger, for instance, not only is a vicious jungle cat played by a dishdasha-wearing human (Cliff Stephens), but he has the kvetching personality of a Borscht Belt standup. And he keeps addressing the audience long after he’s been killed. And he’s not the only character to do so.
Rajiv Joseph’s play, set in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, might well have been called The Men with the Golden Gun: A gold-plated pistol, once owned by Uday Hussein, figures into the lives not only of the tiger, but of the soldiers who desire it. Like the ring of Mordor, it feeds their self-destruction, a metaphor for the insanity men are driven to. It’s an existential reverie with multiple points of view, and it never really answers most of the questions it asks.
Theatre 3’s production, gritty and stark with a bombed-out look and language as course as sandpaper, creates a harsh and abstract world where sex, violence and power are inextricable. The cast — especially Parker Fitzgerald as a whacked-out soldier, Akron Watson as a serviceman and
Blake Hackler as an Arabic translator — bring shocking intensity to the show. It’s not for the faint of heart. Few things worthwhile are.
Also not for the faint of heart: The middle-aged bodies in Speedos hanging out in the wrecked remnants of a swimming pool. Undermain ironically came above ground (it’s at the City Performance Hall) for the below-ground setting of Penelope, Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s quirky updating of the Odysseus myth. Four fellas are all that’s left of the suitors who tried to woo Odysseus’ woman, Penelope, while her husband was questing for a generation; they suspect he’s about to come back and will kill them unless they act in concert.
Only they can’t. Men being men, they bicker and bloviate and try too hard to one-up each other until the inevitable occurs.
Penelope sometimes slogs, as each of the characters speechify in the ways writers and actors enjoy more than audiences. But the cast of gifted gentlemen — Max Hartman, Bruce DuBose, R. Bruce Elliott and Gregory Lush — possess, collectively, an infinite capacity to be entertaining, and director Stan Wojowodski Jr.’s quirky choices as he wanders through the last earthly hours of the damned makes for a thought-provoking 85 minutes.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs through Feb. 9 at
Penelope runs through Jan. 26 at
City Performance Hall.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 18, 2013.