Tiger, Tiger at Dixon Place – A response

Photo by Lee Wexler

Photo by Lee Wexler

In one of those small world, big city sort of moments, it wasn’t until 20 minutes into the play that I realized the black-clad, long-locked girl playing the eponymous tiger had been sitting directly in front of me on the 6 train to the show, hastily eating her dinner of a panini pressed sandwich and grapes. In the train, I had observed her wet hair and wondered where she was going all shower-fresh at 6:30 on a Friday evening. Class? A friend’s apartment?

Instead, she was headed to the wild world of tiger tiger (on the nature of violence), which continues its run November 20 and 21 at Dixon Place. This show has all the requisite devised theater tools an actor could dream of: racks of costumes for quick changes, stand microphones to breathe heavily into, a prop vending machine, and an expanse of whiteboard for the characters to scribble upon. Thanks to the high energy the ensemble brought to the stage, often sprinting back and forth between scenes, the atmosphere quickly came to resemble a sort of manic rec room.

This energy was vital to the storytelling, and the performance vividly depicted the panic and confusion that spill out of a random act of violence. Tiger tiger took risks in its storytelling, some of which paid off more than others. I appreciated the chaos and the mess of the set design, particularly in moments when the trash bin full of empty soda cans (with straws) got kicked all over the stage, or when the hodgepodge assembly of chairs were forcefully rearranged in a particularly turbulent scene. As the play unfolds, swaying between hilarity and danger, the audience has the delightful challenge of reconstructing for themselves what exactly happened at the zoo that fateful night. As I settled in for the ride, I found myself thinking that this was a satisfyingly weird performance — I was willing to surrender to my confusion in order to focus on the sheer imagination that was being enacted in front of me.

The apex of the play was a news broadcast scene, in which the audience is assaulted by an onslaught of multimedia stimuli, employed to achieve a disorienting multi-narrative effect. Kate Benson’s rapid-fire one-woman delivery of talk news à la Nancy Grace, layered with continuous projected typing across the whiteboard and Teri Madonna’s off-camera interjections created an excellent simulation of the impossible overload of content standard within any American news program. And although I suppose the aftermath of violence is always the most bewildering part — when those affected try to put their lives back together and determine their personal narratives — I felt the play lost some of its cohesiveness once we ventured past this scene.

In addition, the night I saw the show, the text being projected on the whiteboard (which was being typed live from somewhere in the space) stumped me with its first words, partially typed and quickly back-spaced: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and Michael Brown. The suggestion of these three names, halfway through the play, made me question whether I actually understood anything that was happening, or if there wast a profoundly meaningful allegory I was not grasping. I could see the parallel between the sensational national media conversations that occur when a young person is tragically killed. But I was uncomfortable with the idea that we were supposed to be finding a correspondence between trespassing young people mauled at the zoo and unarmed young black men being shot in public. Although I don’t feel that the teenagers in the play deserved to die by any means, they were trespassing and provoking a wild animal in captivity. From my understanding, Trayvon and Michael’s actions in the face of their attackers were certainly not comparable, and they were by no means calling the violence upon themselves. Were Trayvon and Michael’s attackers supposed to be the tigers in captivity?

The playwright/director, Jessica Almasy, writes in her program note:

i decided that for this commission, i needed to write something socially relevant, that metabolized something or became an inroad for someone else. and this was happening over the past two years, when mostly young black men started getting detained and hurt or killed by mostly white police. i didn’t feel like i had a political or personal identity that granted me the authority to run head on at these subjects, but i did feel like i could write about some kids being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and i did feel like i could write about a tiger.

so this lives as a story illuminating the sometimes subtle and frequently accidental underpinnings of violence, a story spinning with that inevitable and totally random sense of being a human roulette wheel, and a story examining how – and if – we really are all complicit in how it all goes down. all of us. even the weather.

Almasy’s perspective helps clarify her intention, but I’m still troubled by the allusion. (Since seeing the show, I have learned that the content of the typing during the newscaster scene may change every night, so perhaps it is undue to ascribe such significance to this moment in my examination of the play.) In the performance I saw, however, tiger tiger distinctly harnessed the tidal waves of emotion that surround an act of random violence, but I wished we could have been left to draw our own conclusions about the applicability of a story like this in a time like now, rather than being led to an answer that didn’t feel entirely satisfactory. Regardless, tiger tiger is a vital story, exploring its subject matter through an imaginative, many-pronged attack.

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