The setting is monumental.
Ornate stone columns and archways loom with decaying grandeur on the stage. History and the ravages of war are established before any words are uttered.
Painting in the gaps are the sounds of war: maneuvering helicopters and the exotic sounds of the Middle East.
As Rajiv Joseph’s BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO opens, the audience is immediately drawn into the world of the play: the time when American Marines were fighting resistance and keeping the peace in Iraq’s war-torn capital. Violence goes beyond a daily occurrence for Iraqis and service-men alike.
At Round House Theatre this month, you can catch this Pulitzer Prize finalist, which I highly recommend. This is one of best plays of the last decade, and Round House’s production, directed by Jeremy Skidmore, captures the savage humanity of Joseph’s play.
Skidmore’s collaborators have done magnificent work to establish the physical world and atmosphere of Baghdad in 2003. Scenic designer Tony Cisek and lighting designer Andrew Cissna’s work cannot be praised enough. Also in strong support, the background score and sound design by Eric Shimelonis provides an auditory sketch book throughout the performance. The costume designs are by Frank Labovitz.
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO is not just a ‘war-play.’ It is a rumination on the ravages of war, to be sure. It is also a ghost story in the sense that characters are haunted by truths they know deeply, yet avoid, and they are haunted by the specters of their own past and those of others.
We also take away the complexity of human nature and how it still includes base elements, akin to wild animals. Like a tiger, for example.
As the title suggests, we encounter a tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, but not during visiting hours. The zoo is being guarded by two U.S. Marines during the occupation of the city by American forces. Many animals were killed during bombings, were stolen or have escaped. The Bengal tiger’s cage is intact, and Tom and Kev keep watch.
Joseph’s take on the tiger is not a 'War Horse'-type puppet. It’s a middle-aged man, dressed simply, who speaks, walks and talks. He observes life from captivity, he has a chip on his shoulder and he talks like a bitter old sailor thrown in the brig for killing a shipmate. Eric Hissom is the tiger.
Guarding the tiger, we find eager for action Kev – played by Felipe Cabezas – and impatient Tom – Danny Gavigan. Kev is trigger happy and itching for combat. Tom, having been at a two day raid at Saddam Hussein’s mansion, has seen his fair share. Tom also has acquired spoils of war that he hopes will set him up for life after he ships back home: a solid gold toilet seat and a pistol made of gold. Tom took the gun from Saddam’s son Uday after killing him in the stand-off.
Cabezas brings a believable street-wise swagger to Kev and he offers strong contrast to Gavigan’s Tom. As Tom, Gavigan offers a more brooding, complex portrayal. Tom is not a cut-and-dry, ‘Boo-Yah’ Marine. His deep seated anger and greed to cash in on his war-prizes drive him with intensity. Gavigan brings out Tom’s best and worst qualities.
Tom’s journey is complicated. His plans for financial gain go awry when he loses a hand to the tiger. Shipped home for a time, he returns to settle up with his fellow Marine, but his life is also changed. In the landscape of Baghdad, things are not always what they seem and situation change in the blink of an eye. Violence is always just outside the door waiting to come in. Both Kev and Tom face this fact and the results are chilling.
Both Marines meet Musa – played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh – an Iraqi gardener who has become a translator for the American forces. With humor, dignity, and complexity, Musa is the heart of BENGAL TIGER. He really represents the people affected most by both a cruel regime and the armed forces that put down Hussein’s despotic rule. Musa is the observer who gets pulled into the battles that take place after the war. The audience also finds he is also the most haunted of all the characters – one of the playwright’s genius touches.