Backstage: ‘Reals’ and ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’


Blair Bowers, Andrés C. Talero, and Jon Hudson Odom in the Theater Alliance production of "Reals." (C. Stanley Photography)
August 28, 2012

According to Gwydion ­Suilebhan, we have an obsession.

“We” is the entire planet. The obsession is with superheroes.

Suilebhan, a D.C.-based playwright, theater blogger and resident playwright for the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, represents Washington in the Dramatists Guild of America.

“Why do we want these stories so much? Why are we craving superhero mythology, as a world culture?” Suilebhan asked. “What is our obsession with masks, secret identities, vigilante justice, transformations, all the different things that come with superhero movies?”

He wanted to tackle these issues onstage, despite a peripheral awareness that the most famous previous attempt to do so was a critical failure (cough cough “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” cough). But he thought the nature of superhero stories — the elaborate costumes, the conflicting emotions, the duality of the characters — was inherently theatrical.

Searching for answers, he turned, as we all do, to Google.

“I happened to stumble into the world of the real-life superhero,” also known as Reals, he said, “real people who decide to put on costumes, assume secret identities [and] new personas, [and] train themselves for hours and hours.”

Suilebhan wanted to know: “Who are these people? There are many more than you realize across the country. And [there are] a lot of mixed feelings about what they do.”

In his resulting play, “Reals,” two Reals are looking for one more hero to join their team. While interviewing potential candidates, they come across a Real with a more radical crime-fighting philosophy: He doesn’t want to fight crime, he wants to fight criminals. “He doesn’t want to stop just one mugging,” Suilebhan said. “He wants to stop that one criminal from ever mugging again.”

His tactics are questionable, as are his motives. “It’s sort of like he wants to believe in things like powers, even though we all know they aren’t real,” Suilebhan said.

Suilebhan points out these more-than-mortals do walk among us. We just watched them during the Olympics. “Usain Bolt has super speed,” he said, just as Michael Phelps has super-swimming skills and McKayla Maroney has a super-scowl.

Four years ago, Suilebhan sat down with two questions in his head: What is the psychology behind our fixation on superheroes, and is there a dark side to that? With a completed script in his hands, he’s decided there is. “I think our love of superheroes, culturally, is partially because we identify with them and we want to be the one who gets to be all-powerful and make big, life-changing decisions, and fight whatever we identify as evil. ”

“I learned over the course of writing this play that I have many more mixed feelings about the genre than I ever did before. I think that our desire, even my interest, in things superheroic, comes from places in which I am equally inspired and vulnerable. . . . I think we want superheroes because we feel powerless in our day-to-day lives. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

Through Sept. 16, Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE.
theateralliance.com, 202-241-2539.

Tiger Tiger at Round House

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.”

Sept. 5-30, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda, roundhousetheatre.org, 240-644-1100.

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