'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' by Rajiv Joseph
Now onstage at Crow's Theatre in association with Modern Times Stage Company
A biting new production of Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ has opened at Crow’s Theatre in association with Modern Times Stage Company. Could there be a past due date stamped on this production which has painfully sat on the shelf for many Covid months? Emphatically no! This play explodes, baffles and mesmerizes from all four corners of the stage.
Artfully directed by Rouvan Silogix and charged with breathtaking performances, this play might be called whimsical if it wasn’t so painful.
Set in the midst of the Iraq war in Baghdad, a captive tiger bemoans her predicament while satirizing her fellow inmates who have foolishly wandered away from the war-torn zoo and city. Teased by an American soldier, the tiger tears off his hand and is in turn shot dead by a second soldier, Kev. Throughout the balance of the play, the tiger’s ghost haunts Kev into insanity and suicide. The insanity of war is exposed by Tom (Andrew Chown), with a newly fashioned prosthetic, who harbours a gold-plated handgun and toilet seat looted from the mansion of Uday Hussein – the son of the dictator. Misadventures continue between Tom and Musa, a creative gardener turned interpreter for the American army. A series of inevitable tragedies underscore the insanities of war.
The performance of Christopher Allen is astounding and riveting. He moves easily through fear in the desolate and dangerous city to overwhelming angst as he is haunted by the tiger. Anguished screams haunt even the audience. His acting versatility is unmatched as his ghost becomes more evocative and philosophical while playing the Greek chorus to the mayhem around him.
Kristen Thomson’s performance as the tiger is equally powerful. Thankfully lacking a loud Halloween costume, subtlety underscores the strength of the tiger’s observations, commenting on the parallels and contrasts of the human and animal world. Strength comes from Thomson’s subtle staring from time to time as her head and neck quietly move as a pensive animal’s would. A very slight lumbering in movement conveys indifference and is enough to contrast with the humans’ erratic movements.
Ahmad Moneka, along with some beautiful singing in act two, artfully plays the gardener turned interpreter who is caught in the middle between two warring factions. His topiary work of various animals hanging from the theatre's heights reflect the majesty of his creations and the horrors of war as some of them are damaged. Stinging interactions between himself and the ghost of Uday, coolly played by Ali Kazmi, hint at repulsive crimes committed against his sister, genuinely played by Sara Jaffri.
The theatre in the round scheme, invoked by designer Lorenzo Savoini was brilliant and intimate as no seating was higher than four rows. Potent lighting and sound (by John Gzowski) paired robustly to remind each scene that the war was ever-present
It is the dynamic of incongruity that makes us ache. Examples of this dissonance include the buffoonery of masturbation in a formal army interpreter’s office. The ridiculousness of eyeing a fortune on a toilet seat. A leper with an empty first aid kit. The ghost of a young girl with half her face blown away cries from one eye – the jest is caught in our throats.
How different are countries from animals? The hunger for oil, wealth or power is not much different from the want of rice or meat. From Iraq to the Ukraine, Rajiv Joseph’s startling message is sadly universal.
‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ by Rajiv Joseph
Performers: Christopher Allen, Andrew Chown, Mahsa Ershadifar, Sara Jaffri, Ali Kazmi, Ahmed Moneka, Kristen Thomson
Director: Rouvan Silogix
Set and lighting designer: Lorenzo Savoini
Costume designer: Ming Wong
Sound designer: John Gzowski
Crow’s Theatre: Runs through November 6, 2022.
Tickets at: www.crowstheatre.com