Editors' pick

Bengal Tiger At the Baghdad Zoo


Editorial Review

‘Bengal Tiger': The beast within
By Peter Marks
Monday, September 17, 2012

For his wholly original black comedy, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” playwright Rajiv Joseph comes up with what seems a fittingly disquieting metaphor for the anguishing entanglements of the American invasion of Iraq. In a cage in the bombed-out zoo of the country’s capital paces the last surviving carnivore, a tiger hunkered down and wondering how in heaven’s name he has wound up trapped behind hostile lines, thousands of miles from home.

“I’m the biggest predatory cat in the world!” the frustrated animal murmurs, in the guise of bearded actor Eric Hissom. In the resonant treatment by director Jeremy Skidmore for Round House Theatre, the big cat exerts no more lasting dominion over the landscape than do the strafed bestial topiaries left over from the decadent reign of Saddam Hussein. The legacy of this cantankerous creature, in fact, amounts chiefly to a trail of wanton mutilation: The tiger chomps off the extremities of soldiers foolish enough to put their hands through the bars of his cage.

Joseph, a Pulitzer finalist in 2010 for this work and a writer on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” takes the chaos of Iraq circa 2003 and, Ionesco-style, spins it into an anthropomorphic absurdist fable. Hissom, who was Folger Theatre’s Cyrano last year, makes for a persuasively profane and earthy beast in captivity, in the role Robin Williams played in the recent Broadway version.

The impressive ensemble Skidmore builds around Hissom ensures that the play’s hallucinogenic twists, its mixing of real and imagined people, remain credibly anchored. The achievement of Danny Gavigan and Felipe Cabezas, playing U.S. Marines, and Pomme Koch and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, as, respectively, Saddam’s son Uday and his former gardener, Musa, is to populate this “Zoo” with figures who compellingly embody the contradictions of a onetime cradle of civilization where the laws of the jungle now hold sway. (Playing various Iraqi women, Salma Shaw and Nadia Mahdi offer suitably sympathetic turns.)

Skidmore and his design team, especially set designer Tony Cisek, lighting designer Andrew Cissna and sound designer Eric Shimelonis, effectively conjure the shattered psyche of the city. The quiet music of birdsong, ringing through an arcade of crumbling arches, conveys a dirge-like melody of terminal decay. No one in the playwright’s zoo, however, departs Baghdad: The soldiers, the tiger, even Uday return after death, as omniscient ghosts to carry on a continuing dialogue with the living, or to wonder at a God who would countenance the destruction of a people and such shapeless, meaningless suffering.

Plotting is not Joseph’s strong suit. “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” itself can feel a little shapeless as it wends its way through the irony-laden experiences of characters such as Gavigan’s Tom, who after losing a hand returns to Iraq in search of the gold-plated toilet seat he pilfered from one of Saddam’s palaces. (“Zoo” is rife with images of mangled bodies, whether in the form of wounded soldiers or lepers or damaged topiaries.) But what the play lacks in forward thrust it makes up for in the lyrically unsettling mosaic it vividly assembles.

Admirably, Skidmore never demurs from portrayals of some of Joseph’s most disturbing images, such as when Cabezas’s Kev makes a ghastly mess of his own act of penitence. Nor does the work spare you a jolting dose of horror, as Koch’s eerily feral embodiment of Uday offers up, when the character tortures Musa with a description of his monstrous defilement and murder of a child. At such moments “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” reminds you that to call a despicable member of our species an “animal” is an insult to animals.

BACKSTAGE: 'Bengal Tiger'
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012

The tiger doesn’t look like a tiger.

That’s deliberate. It’s right there in the script, that the tiger ought to be very much a man. Not feline in any way, not in movement, not in costume. He’s supposed to look like us.

It’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” by Rajiv Joseph, and the tiger in question is an outsider, taken to Iraq from India in the midst of war, in 2003. One night, while being guarded by U.S. soldiers, the tiger bites a soldier’s hand. Another soldier shoots the tiger, who slowly bleeds to death. But his ghost lingers, haunting the soldiers and asking the big life-and-death questions that haunt him.

“Ultimately the tiger’s journey is one of almost trying to become more human,” director Jeremy Skidmore said. “He starts to deal with a lot of the self-reflective questions that make people people, [and] he grapples with those questions: Is violence an intrinsic part of our nature or is it something that we learn? And if it’s something that we learn, is it something we can unlearn?”

“Bengal Tiger,” which was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, will be Skidmore’s 50th professional production. Pre-production took six months -- an unusually long period, Skidmore said, because “it took the designers and me a while to really wrap our heads around what we thought the play was about.”

“It’s this wonderful combination of opposites, of poles,” said sound designer Eric Shimelonis. “I have to support this devastating violence and profane side of the play while also fostering the charming, humorous side.” He’s incorporated his “huge archive” of recordings of the ney, a Middle Eastern flute, into the show’s score.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek wanted to imbue the environment with “a little bit of a mystical sensibility.” The play, he said, deals with the idea of feeling displaced. “Once we are taken out of our element . . . how do we act? We have to rely on our instincts, and what do we do? And it turns out that many of us commit these acts of violence.”

The tiger “is wandering around this unknown landscape, confused and trying to find answers,” Cisek said. “And the soldiers are in the same situation.”

That feeling is echoed in the set. “The paths and hallways are constantly shifting,” Cisek said. “There’s a lot of grille work and gates that slide in and out. Sometimes you have access, sometimes you don’t.”

“There’s a lot of emotional questions for me about the ghosts that we leave behind, the people we leave behind, the questions we leave behind, for everyone who fought in the war,” Skidmore said. “They’re not just Iraqi ghosts. They’re American ghosts. The play brings up, if there’s no heaven, no place for them to go, their spirits are left in Iraq -- trapped in Iraq -- a place they weren’t supposed to be and weren’t supposed to die. The same is true of the tiger.”