Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
There’s so much fluff out there on the boards now that finding two red-hot plays with something to say, the players to say it, and roars of laughter like fireworks in their essential darkness is cause for celebration. Just be sure you don’t miss either one!
First, the hardest thing I had to do all week was sit on a post for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo until the show opened—hard because writing is easiest when you’re fueled by great joy or great anger, and Tiger gave lavishly of both; joy at the skill and energy of the production, and anger at the ongoing stupidity that is Iraq. In fact, I left the theater with such a surge of excitement that I wanted to go home and really penetrate my computer–but only after calling everyone I knew to urge them to buy tickets right away.
Yes, I remembered Moisés Kaufman’s brilliant script and direction for 33 Variations and was curious to see what he’d do with Rajiv Joseph‘s 2010 Pulitzer-finalist play. Not to worry: it was like the collaboration of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher on The Social Network—purest synergy, indivisible but, in this case, live on stage and reporting directly from today’s trenches.And here’s the rest of it: the cast has been imported intact (save for Robin Williams in the title role) from its earlier incarnation in Los Angeles. They know all the moves by heart (and some of them are risky), and perform them as a revved-up team that relishes every word.
As for Robin Williams: let’s just say that if you ever had to meet a tiger, you’d want him to be Robin Williams—equal parts whimsy, carnivore and lusty philosopher. Devoid of the shtick that has sometimes obscured his huge talent, he is actually perfect for, and in, the role. Kaufman’s high-speed direction never misses a beat, and the sets (by Derek McLane) and costumes (by David Zinn) are partners in pleasure. There is so much power on and behind the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater that it’s hard to leave without feeling compelled to see it all again—just consider it a necessary indulgence.
Yes, there really are two must-sees in town right now, and Wittenberg is one of them. Here, too, the play is the thing (by David Davalos, who knows his classics inside and out, and has a truly wicked sense of humor) but—and this is a must-know—Wittenberg will be generating its heat and light only until April 17 because the City Center is being renovated, including its Stage II space, now home base for the Pearl Theatre.
Wittenberg is a merry mashup of Shakespeare (as Hamlet); God (as Martin Luther); and the devil incarnate (as Dr. Faustus). Plus the protean Eternal Feminine in many guises, all played to a turn by Joey Parsons. It includes—all in period garb—the Prince of Denmark wearing ear-buds, Faust holding forth as a lusty country-and-Western idol on a modern mandolin (God, he’s good!), and Luther himself struggling mightily with a first draft of his 95 theses–very yesterday, very today.
It’s amazing what Davalos’ mind has made of this potent brew, and how director J.R. Sullivan has shaped its roller-coaster antics with theatrical cunning. Events turn on a dime; just when you think you’ve signed on for a classical comedy, you realize that the actors are taking you down a very different path. Before you know it, you’re discovering some essential life lessons in the hands of highly skilled lectors with internal GPS and absolute pitch. Like all great theater, Wittenberg was developed over time (what a luxury!) by a resident company that has used it to advantage. and now benefits from the intimacy and comfort of its new theater. And if you want to see it again, you’ll have your chance this September; it will debut in London, then at the Gate Theatre, and (in German) in Berlin at the end of March. Meantime, the Pearl will be back on its renovated stage as of September 13: pearl theatre