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A Tale of a Tiger

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The presidential election may have come and gone, but political theatre remains alive and well in New York. From the low, rumbling growls gradually growing into a wall-shaking roar, one would think that A Tale of a Tiger, which is playing at 59E59 Theatres through January 2, had the most fired-up cast in town. But the growls aren't coming from the performers - they're coming from the audience.

The ferocity that the play's sole actor, Ami Dayan, unleashes in audiences still hurting from the results of the election is the most inherently wondrous thing about A Tale of a Tiger. Otherwise, this production - which Dayan also directed and freely adapted from Dario Fo's charged 1978 play - seems considerably less feline than canine: In short, its bark is worse than its bite.

In a slightly different climate, that bark might be enough to startle one to attention. But as presented here and now, the play is one of those feel-good, "don't just sit by, stand and take action" plays that have so constituted political theatre this season. If such exhortations are by now familiar to the point of pedestrian, Dayan's specific work manages to be more subtle. Most of the play, a retelling of a Chinese folk tale based on an Indian myth, has no visible connections to politics at all.

Instead, it's a recounting of what happens when a soldier, fighting for Mao Zedong against Chiang Kai-shek, is severely wounded and takes refuge in a cave in the Himalayas. The cave, however, is actually the home of a tigress, one that takes a surprise liking to the soldier and begins treating him like the cub she recently lost in a torrential downpour. (Another remains with her and lives in the cave.) After she heals the soldier with her saliva and nourishes him with her milk and the wild animals she's able to kill, they form a kind of family unit.

The meat of the story is what happens when the soldier must eventually reintegrate himself into normal society, with or without the tigers. Dayan offers two possible endings: In one, the soldier takes advantage of the tigers' healing abilities and eventually becomes a trusted healer himself, and one (based on Fo's original) in which the tigers' bravery and strength help inspire the weak, frightened populace to stand against their corrupt government. (Both endings are performed on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday evenings; other performances have only the first.)

You don't have to look very hard to find parallels to current U.S. political feelings, though the second ending does not prove as incendiary as a program note insists it was when the production was first performed in 1994 Israel. (Dayan felt compelled to devise the alternate ending at that point.) Still, even the second ending is remarkably toothless, even more predictable in a season that's already seen (among others) The Frogs at Lincoln Center make very similar points. That Dayan coaxes the loudest sounds from the audience occurs during the first, "safer" ending, when the soldier-as-medicine-man is bringing out his patients' inner tigers, tells you all you need to know.

At least Dayan proves versatile both physically and vocally in embodying his characters both human and beastly. He's also quite amiable, making constant eye contact with specific audience members, even casually chatting with them and getting them to participate in the storytelling. (A few of these moments, in which he encourages unwilling - and often uncomfortable - audience members to translate tigerspeak could be excised with no ill effects.)

Dayan is less sure-footed as an adapter; sometimes his use of contemporary vernacular and line delivery takes you out of the story rather than drawing you in. Miki Ben Cnaan assisted Dayan in adapting the piece and designed the show - the set represents at once a medicine man's campsite, the tiger's cave, and even the underbelly of the tigress herself. The fine, subtle lighting is by Jerry Browning; the movement and minimal choreography by Robert Davidson; and Ron Bagno composed some haunting incidental music.

More chilling is what overshadows Bagno's music: the audience's roars. They're also some of the best examples of audience participation I've seen at the theatre all year, though they do shed some light on why the play's second ending and A Tale of a Tiger itself fall somewhat flat: What's needed right now isn't another call to action, but healing. The medicine man, not the rabble-rouser, is the more significant symbol for our currently troubled and divided times.

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A Tale of a Tiger
Through January 2
Running Time: 75-95 minutes with no intermission
59E59 Theaters - Theater B, 59 East 59th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200