It’s 2003. The US has occupied Iraq. After a traumatic episode at the Baghdad zoo, two American soldiers find themselves caught up in the afterlife of a tiger and the vengeance of an Iraqi gardener. Presented by Crow’s Theatre and Modern Times Stage Company, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is an ambitious, charged work.
The story confronts us with murder, suicide, and rape. There is a whimsical, surrealist edge to even the worst horrors depicted or alluded to. A golden gun. A severed head. Violent conflict disorients our characters, unmoors them from the deceptive comfort of conventional morality. They are all desperately clawing for purchase in a crumbling war-zone.
After taunting a caged tiger, Tom (Andrew Chown) has his hand bitten off. In defence and retaliation, Kev (Christopher Allen) kills the animal. Early on, the poetic and fanciful aspects of Joseph’s play are revealed as this tiger—in human form (Kristin Thomson)—addresses us as a ghost. Several more characters find themselves trapped in this spectral limbo as the story progresses.
Musa (Ahmed Moneka), the Iraqi gardener employed as translator by the US military, is one of the most easily sympathetic of the lot. His fraught dynamic with Kev and Tom is greatly intriguing and his scenes with either of them were the most compelling to me.
Each of these men have an uneasy, problematic relationship to their own manhood. Though the American soldiers are desperate to fashion their brute force and bluster into some sort of grand accomplishment, Musa must reconcile an awful history with his current need to assert himself amidst vulgar atrocities.
The naturalistic scenes between characters are tense, funny and exhilarating. The ghosts, however—trapped on earth, imbued with vast cosmic knowledge—indulge in metaphysical ramblings. I’m usually drawn to magic realism, but it feels like an unnecessary contrivance here. There is lyrical resonance in the juxtaposition of an animal’s primal hunger for meat with our human yearning for tokens of power; and there are moments of great humour and pathos, but I found the ghostly dialogue, for the most part, banal and lacking urgency.
The performers, though, are emotive and electric throughout. And the aesthetic of Rouvan Silogix’s production is considerably more potent than a lot of the trite philosophical passages. The play asks us to wrestle with a god’s place in the vile chaos of war and the textures of this staging convey well this struggle.
Lorenzo Savoini’s design—set, props, and lighting—has an expressive intensity. Majestic topiary hang in the air above our heads. Even more striking: as the action unfolds, a collection of Persian carpets that line the floor get pulled up and dragged about. Tables are overturned. Sand falls from the sky. None of this mess is ever cleaned up; it accumulates and tangibly haunts the world of the story. It also conveys an unsettling entropy that disrupts any grand notions we have of our own humanity
As a whole, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is not a play that I am entirely appreciative of, but this production captures its strengths while admirably bolstering the aspects I find tiresome. It is, certainly, a provocative theatrical experience.