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Originally published Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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In ‘Bengal Tiger,’ war’s many ghosts wander

A review of Rajiv Joseph’s play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” staged by Washington Ensemble Theatre.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW

‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’

Through Oct. 7, a production by Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., Seattle; $15-$20 (206-325-5105 or washingtonensemble.org).

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“Human beings suffer,/They torture one another,/They get hurt and get hard,” wrote poet Seamus Heaney. “No poem or play or song/ Can fully right a wrong/Inflicted and endured.”

And yet, we count on writers to mirror and explore the furious, unintelligible chaos of war — and what it reveals about our collective humanity.

In his imaginative, fierce and fearless play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” American dramatist Rajiv Joseph swirls images and incidents from the U.S.-Iraq war into an unpredictable fever dream of mordant comedy, vicious violence, post-traumatic guilt and a tour of purgatory by prowling, ruminative ghosts.

It is a wildly ambitious script that sags and chases its own tail at times. But there is an urgency, a largeness of vision here, which director Michael Place and his strong Washington Ensemble Theatre cast seize upon in the play’s Seattle debut. In its 10th season, the valuable WET again brings us face-to-face with a current drama of depth and daring.

The tiger here (played in human garb by the perfectly sardonic, feline and quietly melancholy Mike Dooly) is a sort of existential comic-philosopher of the urban jungle. His mortal life ends once he rips off the hand of a cocky U.S. Marine, Tom (Jonathan Crimeni), and is killed by another G.I., the jumpy, obnoxious Ken (Ryan Higgins).

That’s life in a nutshell, says this blasé wild cat: “You get hungry, you get stupid, you get shot and die.”

But in war-torn Baghdad (evoked beautifully and mysteriously, in Tommer Peterson’s set of sandstone, ruined garden and night vista), the dead do not fade away. They wander, and wonder, hunt for God and haunt the living. The tiger haunts Ken. Ken later haunts Tom. Iraqi translator Musa (soulful Erwin Galan), a decent and bereft ex-gardener, is haunted by his ravaged sister, and by Saddam Hussein’s brutal playboy son (smarmy Ali el-Gasseir).

One small carp: Rajiv gives us caricatures of “ugly Americans” whose macho ignorance seems boundless. A shade less showy bravado from Crimeni and Higgins, who are otherwise impressive, might make them more relatable.

In death, phantoms Ken and the tiger gain conscience, and guilt, a gnawing need to comprehend their past deeds — and make sense of the “ natural order” of an existence that can be , as Hobbes put it, so solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play doesn’t provide answers. It does suggest, in a roundabout way, that it’s possible to ponder the eternal consequences of our needless acts of savagery and war before we commit them. Tigers, at least, kill to eat.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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