Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, Ion Theatre (Part two)

If you like your war plays/movies to be recruiting posters for the next big one, then skip Ion's first-rate production of an amazing play. It's clear why Bengal Tiger was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2011. The question is why it didn't win.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph created a theatrical anarchy zone: Iraq, 2003, just after the American invasion. People devolve to their animal natures; predators prey, and their ghosts pray for a salvation that may never arrive.

To underline the hopelessness, director Claudio Raygoza often moves his actors in slow, counterclockwise circles, as if trailing ever backwards, away from resolutions and the Light.

About the only thing that moves forward is Uday Hussein's golden pistol, which has a reverse Midas Touch: everyone who handles it dies. And as you follow the golden gun (in search of the grand prize, Uday's golden toilet seat), you watch madness go viral.

Ion has become San Diego's flagship for daring, important, disturbing theater, and for offering knockout shows on a stage no bigger than a two-car garage.

Scenic designer Brian Redfern has concrete porticos pocket with bullet-holes, the Bengal tiger's cage, and Oday Hussein's topiary ("God's Garden") and still has room for the play's existential probings and explosive, absurdist humor downstage.

Karin Filijan's lighting, including dappled, gobo effects, and Melanie Chens' sounds - booming blasts and barely audible music - turn the stage into a zoo without bars.

"When I get hungry, i get stupid," says Ron Choularton's tiger at the beginning of a fascinating performance (among his finest). Shaggy haired and bearded, with lifeless eyes, in the end he wails like an old biblical prophet whose followers abandon him one by one.

Brian Abraham's multi-faceted Musa may be the one "whole" character in the play (the others become so after death). But it's a curse, since his knowledge and culpability corral him. Excellent work.

Jake Rosko and Evan Kendig nicely marble gung-ho G.I. bravado with off-kilter perplexity. Linda Permenter and Olivia Ruiz play Iraqi women - i.e. human crime scenes.

The first time I saw Claudio Raygoza act was back in, ironically, 2003, the year Bengal Tiger takes place. He was unforgettable as the blind, "ham actor/hammer" Hamm in Beckett's Endgame. At the time I thought: whoa - there's a hot new actor in town! Little did I know he also wrote and directed and designed sets, lights, and costumes and would become an artistic director and would do very little acting in the next decade.

Raygoza showed his stuff last year as a trash-talking intern in The Little Flower of East Orange, and earned a Craig Noel Award for his effort. He's doing it again, this time as Uday Hussein. When he enters as a ghost with bullet holes across his chest carrying the severed head of younger brother Qusay - with a perfect accent, splendid timing, and dripping with attitude - Raygoza takes Joseph's already finny and nightmarish play over the woods and through the river.

Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest, playing through June 1.

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It IS an amazing play and I KNOW ion and Raygoza are doing it UP -- I'm envious of all you SD play goers!

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