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SCRUTINY | Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo Is Breathtakingly Brilliant

By Paula Citron on October 24, 2022

Crow’s Theatre & Modern Times Stage Company: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Crow’s Theatre & Modern Times Stage Company: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Crow’s Theatre & Modern Times Stage Company/Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, written by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Rouvan Silogix, Guloien Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Oct. 11 to Nov. 6. Tickets available here.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is taut, satiric, surreal, relentless and breathtakingly brilliant. It’s best described as expressionism writ large with a highly original plot that is a cross between Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit, and the 1950 western Winchester ’73. By the way, there is also a streak of la comédie noire that runs throughout.

Like many other American plays that show up in our city, Bengal Tiger earned writer Rajiv Joseph a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and deservedly so. The play premiered in 2009, just six short years after the Iraqi War began, so the horrors of that particular shock and awe were still fresh in mind. The play takes us back to the war’s early days in 2003 when the collision of cultures was fresh and raw.

We meet two US marines, Kev (Christopher Allen) and Tom (Andrew Chown) who are stationed at the Baghdad Zoo. Tom had earlier been at the battle to take down Saddam Hussein’s sons Qusay and Uday, and in the pillage that followed, he got his hands on both Uday’s gold-plated revolver and gold-plated toilet seat. On the Iraqi side of things, the soldiers’ translator Musa (Ahmed Moneka) was formerly Uday’s gardener.

And then there is the Tiger (Kristen Thomson), and what a brilliant idea it was of director Rouvan Silogix to make the character a woman, giving a softer side to the animal of prey. Thomson is such a skilled actor that she finds the perfect note of irony for what are the funniest lines of the play. (FYI, the late Robin Williams played the role of Tiger on Broadway.)

Surrounding these four central characters are Uday Hussein’s ghost (Ali Kazmi), a couple of Iraqi Women (Mahsa Ershadifar), and two teenage girls (Sara Jaffri), one of whom is Musa’s sister Haida, and the other, a young prostitute.

The Tiger is killed first and becomes a ghost, followed by other deaths which create more ghosts, while coveted objects change hands. In this round-robin of hauntings and greed, playwright Joseph explores great themes, primarily, the search for the meaning of life, which includes the Tiger’s own existential journey.

Crow’s Theatre & Modern Times Stage Company: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Crow’s Theatre & Modern Times Stage Company: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Incidentally, Tiger is clearly the smartest creature in the room, as well as being the most observant, the most thoughtful and the most questioning. Like the Americans, she came from somewhere else, only in Baghdad, she was a prisoner and not an occupier. By nature, Tiger is a beast of prey, which puts into stark relief the humans around her, who have the option to forgo violence.

Caught up in the juggernaut of war, every character has to find a way to cope, be they dead or alive, which is not easy to do as terrible things happen. In short, playwright Joseph has embedded his characters within heady philosophical concerns as they stumble around in limbo. That one of the spoils of war is a gold toilet seat is a great metaphor for a shitshow of a world. This may be Baghdad 20 years ago, but you can’t help thinking about present day Ukraine.

The set is interesting because it is the one that was used for Crow’s fabulous production of Uncle Vanya. We have the same theatre in the round, and a floor festooned with Oriental carpets. The only difference is that the set pieces are new and reflect a war zone, rather than a Russian country manor. So kudos to Lorenzo Savoini (set, props and lighting), Ming Wong (costumes) and John Gzowski (sound). The production values are superb.

A big round of applause should also go to the troupe of marvellous actors who have created such memorable characters, and, who between them, strike not one false note. For his part, director Silogix has ensured that the pacing is unrelenting, which sweeps the audience up in a cyclone of dizzying thoughts and ideas. On a side note, Silogix is the newly appointed artistic director of Modern Times Stage Company, so we can look for a promising future from that revered theatrical organization.

As we have stated many times before, theatre should provoke, but Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo goes beyond that. The play takes us to the very crucible of contemplating life after death, which is a very powerful and sobering afterthought as we leave the theatre.


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Paula Citron
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