THE BLOG
04/16/2011 02:58 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2011

Stage Door: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, War Horse

The Iraq War is now in its eighth year -- and the costs, in personal, economic and political terms, are staggering. But translating the existential aspects of the war demands a sensitive dramatist like Rajiv Joseph. His Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is an intimate metaphorical masterpiece.

Now at the Richard Rodgers Theater, it stars the incomparable Robin Williams as a tiger turned philosopher; he looks and sounds like an elderly Jewish academic: thoughtful, angry and curious. Set in Baghdad in 2003, the play blends actual events -- the killing of Uday Hussein, Saddam's brutal son (Hrach Titizian), to surreal ones, the killing of a tiger -- to explore the big issues of sin and redemption, God and morality.

Two American soldiers, a trigger-happy grunt named Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis), are guarding a tiger. When Tom, stupidly proud to own Uday's gold gun and gold toilet seat, tries feeding him, the tiger bites his hand off. Kevin grabs the gun and kills him.

Freed from his earthly existence, the tiger finds himself in an afterlife. Stunned, he's forced to rethink his past, since tigers are "unabashed atheists." Musing on the meaning of life -- and the children he's eaten -- the tiger explains: "It isn't cruelty; it's lunch." Heaven and hell are constructs, he explains, for "hungry and not hungry."

Violence is primal in animals, a contagion in man.

The tiger haunts Kev, whose fragile psyche is teetering, while Uday haunts Musa (Arian Moayed), his former gardener turned American translator, who created an exquisite topiary of exotic animals. An artist engulfed by barbarity, one begins to wonder who is truly caged.

The absurdity and insanity of war is juxtaposed with extraordinary ruminations on the purpose of existence and the nature of God. That Joseph finds both humor and meaning amid chaos, makes Bengal Tiger a revelatory experience. A lovely set by Derek McLane evokes the history and beauty of ravaged Baghdad, while David Lander's lighting neatly sets the mood. The performances are compelling, aided by Moises Kaufman's deft direction. Bengal Tiger may rail against God, but our real salvation, as Musa's garden illustrates, is finding -- and protecting -- our artistry and humanity.

The carnage of war is addressed in a second Broadway show, War Horse, a searing production that is remarkable for its imaginative staging and raw emotional power. Majestic in its sweep, War Horse, at Lincoln Center, begins in 1912, two years before the outbreak of World War I. Teenage Albert (a brilliant Seth Numrich) is an English farm boy devoted to his beloved horse, Joey.

But fate, in the form of a drunken father (Boris McGiver), intervenes. Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Determined to find him, teenage Albert enlists -- and is caught up in the savagery of battle. The grandeur of War Horse is in the telling -- the plight of one boy and his horse is a window into unimaginable human suffering: 10 million soldiers died in the war to end all wars.

To render it artistically is a theatrical triumph. Based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, the production employs sophisticated puppetry and an extraordinary cast. The Handspring Puppet Company created horses so real, the audience wept at their plight. In fact, horses were essential to the military. They carried the tanks and mobile kitchens, and 8 million died during The Great War. To imagine the cavalry standing against machine guns and tanks is to envision slaughter on a massive scale.

The genius of War Horse is its sensitivity to the fear and humanity on both sides of the conflict. This isn't a geopolitical treatise; this is a poetic exploration of the ghastly effects of war. The palpable anguish of men desperate to retain some vestige of humanity is beautifully realized by a German officer (Peter Hermann). The team that assembled War Horse -- Rae Smith's sets and drawings, Paule Constable's lighting, Chrisopher Shutt's sound and the directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris -- are to be lauded for their moving work. War Horse shatters conventional war stories -- it will haunt you long after you leave the theater.