December 8, 2023

Catching Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on successive evenings was a mistake.  A big mistake.  After the textured ideas of Stoppard’s elegiac masterpiece, sitting through Joseph’s foul-mouthed sketch of a play was tantamount to watching monkeys bang about on a typewriter that would never produce Hamlet. I make no bones about being a fan of Stoppard’s work.  His plays are consistently engaging and edifying, filled with an almost unquenchable intellectual curiosity.  Technically sound, they bear the discrete hallmarks of a craftsman.  Yet despite all the work you know must be going into building such a complex work of art, Stoppard’s plays don’t flaunt their intellectual rigor; nor is there any wink to the artifice of the endeavor.  Instead there’s just that sublime experience that happens all too frequently in the theater:  getting swept along by a ripping good story that provokes you both above and below the waist.  Arcadia is so stimulating, so hugely satisfying that it bears up to repeated viewings because you simply want to be engaged in the playwright’s conversation.  Set at Sidley Park, a Derbyshire country estate, Arcadia concerns itself with two sets of inhabitants some two hundred years apart:  Thomasina, a gifted young girl who proposes a theory in 1809 that’s far beyond the intellectual boundaries of the times, and her tutor, Septimus, a dashing poet in the mold of Lord Byron, who – like Byron – gets  mixed up with the ladies of the estate far too frequently for his own good.  In deep focus, Thomasina’s mother quarrels with her landscape gardener:  her idealized English garden is a Capability Brown-designed triumph of man over nature; are the newfangled Romantic yearnings for the picturesque worth ripping up all that perfectly pruned hedge?  Flashing forward to the same setting in the present day we find two academic adversaries piecing together clues that curiously recollect the events of 1809:  was Lord Byron a guest at Sidley Park – and more importantly, was he responsible for a murder which would explain his sudden flight to the Continent? Are the garden follies and the hermitage a fitting metaphor for the decline of the Age of Reason and the triumph of feelings?  Between the deductions of the present day and historical reality, we see the hubris, the yawning chasm. Despite all the linguistic fireworks, this is the simple idea Stoppard seems to be trying to share: the elusiveness of truth is our wilderness, our Arcadia.  Et in Arcadia ego. Joseph’s play has it’s own elusive truths, granted in an altogether much less hospitable environment – Baghdad, 2003.  A pair of soldiers guarding the bombed out zoo taunt a tiger til it bites back, ripping the hand off one of the grunts and getting shot dead in the process.  However, nothing truly dies along the Tigris, or at least the souls of the departed aren’t allowed a moment’s rest. The beast is released to wander the streets, contemplating the existence of God in these hellish surroundings, while questioning his own animal nature.  While Stoppard allows his story to unfold through his characters, Joseph seems content to settle for the easy way out: one endless amateur metaphor after another.  War is hell, nobody remains unscathed, we are all complicit – yeah, we get it.  Next?  The play is riddled with lazy writing and bad dramaturgy. Saddled with a plot that lacks basic narrative sense, it devolves into a race between the grunt with the missing hand (haunted by the ghost of his buddy who shot the tiger) and a military translator (haunted by the ghost of Uday Hussein and the head of his brother, Qusay) to find a golden gun and toilet seat looted from the palace of the Hussein boys. The play isn’t helped by the casting of Robin Williams in the role of the blind-leading-the-blind tiger.  A dominating personality, Williams’ comic genius doesn’t lend itself to introspective existential musings.  He lacks a certain gravitas that would give the role a needed legitimacy.  Don’t get me wrong, King Lear the part is not.  But Mork lost in the wilderness it shouldn’t be either.  Mork searching for a lost Arcadia, however, now that would be an altogether more interesting idea for a play than what’s currently taking up space at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

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