Playwright: Rajiv Joseph. At: Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets: 312-337-0665; www.lookingglasstheatre.org; $36-$70. Runs through: March 17
There are a number of paths you can take into this story: you can track the eventsin this case, an incident following a bombing at the Baghdad zoo in war-ravaged Iraq, where one of the American soldiers guarding the site gets too close to the tiger's cage and has his hand bitten off, whereupon the other trooper shoots the animal dead, only to be fatally harassed by the feline's ghost. You could focus on the tale's attention-grabbing McGuffina gold-plated Desert Eagle .44 automatic pistol, alleged to have been looted in the invasion on the now-deceased tyrant Uday Hussein, but subsequently passing into other hands. These belong to a third line of entryIraqi translator Musa, once the landscape artist who created a topiary menagerie for Uday's garden, now haunted, himself, by the likewise restless specter of his late boss.
You can also ignore the overt dramatic action and concentrate on the abstract aspects: the parallels between two predators both justifying inhumane deeds as their nature (the beast, but not the man, questioning whether his nature is, in fact, evil), or the inevitability of violence in an environment infected with hostile mistrust leading to murder on the most casual of pretexts. Then again, you can look past the cartoonish portrayal of the occupying troops for insight into the erosive stress of guerrilla-based conflict, or you can immerse yourself in the linguistics of conversations rendered (without subtitles) in Arabic or Authentic GI gibberish. You can even join the dead in their contemplations on the healing transcendence granted by the afterlifesometimes.
It doesn't matter how you approach the thematic labyrinth of Rajiv Joseph's nebulous play, however, since you're unlikely to walk away comprehending all of it after a single viewing. Better to resign yourself to missing large portions of the intellectual content, so you can instead relax and enjoy the visual dazzle of the shrubbery animals, or the pathos of a soldier deprived of his masturbating hand, or the novelty of a phantom tiger, for chrissakes, delving existential philosophy.
Director Heidi Stillman and her well-trained cast make the time pass quickly for the two-and-a-quarter hours (one intermission) of their narrative's duration, so when you go home unsure of what you just witnessedand you won't be alone, if opening-night audience response is any measurebe assured that there's no one single answer to what lesson lies in Joseph's parable.