I guess when events are just too horrible to treat any differently one makes a comedy out of them. The aftermath of the US led invasion of Iraq certainly fits that category and Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, currently being performed by Modern Times Stage Company at the Streetcar Crowsnest, is as black a comedy as you will likely ever see. It’s also very difficult to write about without major spoilers.
Let me try anyway. We open with two US Marines; a cynical veteran and a super nervous and incompetent rookie, and a tiger in its cage at the zoo. A botched attempt to feed the tiger sets off a series of events involving ghosts, suicide, murder, madness, topiary animals, leprosy, a gold toilet seat and a severed head. The ghosts, which include the tiger and a little girl with half a head, are “blessed” with consciousness and (limited) knowledge. Why, the tiger asks, am I, a creature designed for killing condemned to eternal guilt for doing just that? Other characters; alive and dead, face similar existential crises. Who is this “God” anyway? And who will get the gold toilet seat?
It’s extremely funny in a disturbing way. It’s also very loud and very profane. There’s lots of violence, too many guns and some very unsettling images. If there’s anything you are triggered by you’ll likely find it somewhere in the two hours the play runs. It’s staged “in the round” in the fairly compact Guloien Theatre which certainly doesn’t diminish the intensity.
Rouvan Silogix’ direction is fast paced and scene succeeds scene efficiently. This creates a framework for some really good performances. I think I have to single out Kristen Thomson as the Tiger. It’s not easy to create a half human/half animal persona but she is very compelling. Her Tiger is both deeply puzzled and very aware of what is happening to her. That’s not an easy ambivalence to pull off. Christopher Allen as Kev, the gormless marine, has a difficult journey to portray with some spectacular physical acting along the way. He’s well matched by Andrew Chown as the other, more ordinary, marine Tom. Ahmed Moneka as the Iraqi gardener/translator also has to portray a wide range of emotions and cope with some pretty heavy scenes which he manages very well. Then there’s Ali Kazmi as the ghost of Uday Hussein. Portraying absolute, unalloyed evil is tough. Making it funny in an absolutely horrible way is near genius. Mahsa Ershadifar portrays a couple of characters. it takes versatility, among other things, to convince as a woman with an M16 pointing at her head and as a super calm, philosophical, leper. Sara Jaffri also doubles up in contrasting roles as a wide-eyed teenager and a very streetwise young prostitute. It’s an impressive ensemble performance.
There are so many layers to unwrap in this play and this production that I’m going to be thinking about for a long time I think. It packs a lot into two hours and it does what great theatre always should; make us think. I recommend it highly. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs until November 6th at Crow’s Theatre.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz