“When an atheist finds himself walking around after death, he has some serious re-evaluating to do,” says a Bengal tiger (Troy West), the oddly appealing philosopher at the center of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
This very black, angry and absurd play, written by Rajiv Joseph, is being given a powerful presentation at Lookingglass Theatre Company from February 10 to March 17, 2013. Director Heidi Stillman says “… although they are very different [Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo] reminds me of The Brothers Karamzov, this tight exciting plot smack up next to the widest ranging philosophical probing that humans (or a tiger) can do.” Artistic Director Andy White comments. “It’s a brilliant, thoughtful and often very funny and full exploration of the best and worst of human nature both on and off the battlefield.”
Two US Marines (JJ Phillips and Walter Owen Briggs) and an Iraqi translator (Anish Jethmalani) find themselves in a world of greed, mystery and betrayal after an encounter with the tiger (Troy West), who becomes one of many ghosts haunting the streets of Baghdad in this fascinating play that explores war, religion, language, friendship, greed, death, and power.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is based on a brief but memorable New York Times article about animals starving and dying in the Baghdad Zoo shortly after the 2003 American invasion. American soldiers were assigned to guard the zoo. When one of them tried to feed a starving Bengal tiger, the tiger bit the soldier’s hand and a second soldier shot and killed the tiger.
Troy West’s Bengal tiger moves and talks deliberately, like the huge cats we see in a zoo. He questions the morality of everything he has done and everything he encounters. When his hunger causes him to bite off the hand of Tom (Walter Owen Briggs), the Marine who tries to feed him, the tiger is immediately killed by Kev (JJ Phillips) with a gold-plated gun Tom had looted from Saddam Hussein’s sons’ home. Becoming a ghost, the tiger asks why not bite the hand? Isn’t that just what a starving tiger would do?
“It’s alarming, this life after death,” the tiger confides. “The fact is, tigers are atheists. All of us. Unabashed. Heaven and hell? Those are just metaphorical constructs that represent ‘hungry’ and ‘not hungry.’ Which is to say, why am I still kicking around?”
Anish Jethmalani movingly portrays Musa, the Marines’ translator. Before the invasion, Musa was an artistic gardener who created fantastic animal topiaries (designed by Daniel Ostling) for Uday Hussein’s garden – the garden at the house where Tom found the golden gun. Uday (played by a terrifically sardonic and malevolent Kareem Bandealy) carries his brother Cosey’s bloody head with him as he haunts Musa who is anguished by his past, his guilt, his ghosts and his inability to do his job.
Musa, Kev, and Tom find themselves in situations where, despite Musa’s knowledge of English, he cannot understand or translate because he does not understand the context – the way the Marines are using words. In a very funny scene, Musa tries to understand the meanings of “bitch” but gives up as Kev’s impatient attempts to explain end up in a linguistic bog.
JJ Phillips’s Kev is a very young, naïve, nervous Marine who initially talks about war as a kind of game yet is terrified by his experiences. Tom is his reluctant anchor – but Tom goes back to the US for surgery and a prosthetic hand. Phillips's performance becomes riveting as the tiger drops in to haunt him while philosophizing and strolling around Baghdad. Unmoored by Tom’s absence, the tiger’s presence, and a frightening and incomprehensible confrontation with an Iraqi couple, Kev is hospitalized.
Tom returns to Baghdad to retrieve the looted golden gun and a solid gold toilet seat, which he thinks will ensure his future. Walter Owen Briggs’s Tom is every inch the Marine. Before he loses his hand, he is strong, cool, knowledgeable and able; in the end, he is as vulnerable as Kev. Bitter at what has happened to him, he visits Kev to get the gun. When Kev can’t give it to him, Tom crushingly denies the friendship Kev thinks they have. Deeply damaged by the war, abandoned by Tom, and isolated with his ghostly tiger, Kev commits suicide.
Tom resumes his search with Musa but never tells him what they are looking for. Inability to communicate, violence, terrible haunting, and deaths continue, taking us to a final scene in the deteriorating topiary garden where West’s tiger, possibly having lost his cynical disbelief, comments that if there is a God, “He is wild. And maybe he should be in a cage.”
Strong performances are also given by Atra Asdou as Musa’s ghostly sister and a young Iraqi prostitute, and Amy J. Carle as an older Iraqi woman and a leper, living alone far out in the desert.
All photographs by Liz Lauren
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is at Looking Glass Theatre, located at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue from February 10 to March 17, 2013.
Tickets are available online at www.lokingglasstheatre.org or by phone at 312-337-0665. The box office is located at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue.
Lookingglass Theatre Company notes that Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo contains adult themes, language, and provocative content.