“This place is lousy with ghosts,” declares the title character right at the beginning of act two of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” currently at CATCO. It’s the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the onstage casualties mount nearly as fast as they did in the real Baghdad a decade ago.
Escalating at the same time are questions about both the war itself and more existential issues of sin and redemption, conscience and memory, and the nature of human cruelty.
That many of these questions emanate from the mouth of a ghost tiger who has been shot after biting off the right hand of a U.S. soldier is but one of the odd parts of Joseph’s play. Kevin McClatchy anthropomorphizes that beast with a matter-of-factness that characterizes almost everything in this play. You might think of “Bengal Tiger” as an extended bout of Midst-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with the characters’ recollections, doubts and fears materializing before their eyes.
Jon Osbeck stands out as Musa, a conflicted translator with horrible regrets of his own. So does Anthony Peeples, the soldier who lost his hand.
At one point, we are reminded that algebra originated in the region that is now Iraq and that the very word comes from Arabic, meaning “a reunion of broken parts.” That concept resonates throughout the play, from lost limbs to damaged topiary. Many parts of “Bengal Tiger” are compelling and promising but don’t add up to a completely satisfying whole.