Rajiv Joseph’s play, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, imagines the Iraq War through the relationship between a tiger and his captors
A ghost story as well as a critique of the American involvement in Iraq, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a tragicomedy seething with anguish, guilt and strange voices – the strangest being that of the play’s titular big cat.
The springboard for Joseph’s story was a news item from 2003, a report about an American soldier who shot dead one of the Baghdad Zoo’s remaining tigers after it mauled a colleague who was attempting to feed it through the bars of its cage.
The play begins with a fictionalised recreation of that scene. Present are two nervy grunts on night patrol, Kev (Josh Anderson) and Tom (Stephen Multari), and a gloomily philosophical and very hungry tiger, personified here by Maggie Dence.
There is also a gold-plated pistol, a souvenir from the firefight in which Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed.
In quick succession, Tom loses an arm, the tiger loses its life, and Kev scores the gun. But that’s not the end of it. This is a world where ghosts speak to the living, where monsters stalk palace gardens, where dreams turn to ashes, and where the lines between man and beast are blurred.
The fallout from the tiger’s death consumes its participants in different ways. Kev, unstable to begin with, is utterly unhinged, convinced the tiger’s ghost is everywhere.
Tom, now fitted with a prosthetic hand, becomes obsessed with the retrieval of his war booty, a mission that engulfs Musa (Andrew Lindqvist), a freelance translator and former topiarist for the Hussein regime.
The tiger, meanwhile, having swapped a zoo cage for the confines of purgatory, wanders the ruined streets and flirts with vegetarianism.
Joseph creates a shifting landscape of moral and physical chaos in Bengal Tiger. Director Claudia Barrie’s intimately scaled, emotionally gripping production draws its audience into it, slowly at first, but very completely.
A stretch of ripped wire fencing serves for zoo cage and permeable barrier between life and death (an Isabel Hudson design). Creative sound and light (Nate Edmondson and Benjamin Brockman, respectively) help move the audience back and forth between life, afterlife and the spaces in between. Masks bring Musa’s menagerie of topiary animals to life to sinister effect.
The acting is strong and detailed. Multari steers Tom from smart-seeming soldier to damaged monomaniac whose mission to retrieve a priceless toilet seat takes on the doomed dimensions of Fred Dobbs’ hunt for gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Anderson vividly portrays a young man losing his shit. Tyler De Nawi sparkles with malevolent charisma as the ghost of the sadistic Uday. Lindqvist burns strongly as Musa comes to dominate the drama. Megan Smart (Musa’s sister Hadia) and Aanisa Vylet (the sole survivor of a ruined leper colony in the desert) offer nuanced support.
Dence’s tiger is a compelling blend of predator and bag lady. Her direct address monologues on the afterlife – in particular her encounter with the confused ghost of a child – are this production’s most powerful and stirring moments.
Bengal Tiger burns bright. Don’t miss it.