Review: War Puzzles in 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' From Ensemble Theatre

So, exactly how does one whack off with a prosthetic hand? This is certainly not one of the more profound questions raised by this complex and compelling play by Cleveland Heights High grad Rajiv Joseph. But it does represent the absurd situations that abound, amidst all the blood and tragedy, in this theatrical expedition into humanity’s dark heart.

Justly nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, Tiger is populated almost equally by the living and the dead, as they all puzzle over the Iraq War and deep existential quandaries. And the Ensemble cast under the direction of Celeste Cosentino, while not exceptional in all cases, delivers the script in a powerful and compelling manner.

Much of the story is narrated, oddly enough, by that eponymous tiger. He is shot dead soon after the show begins by an American soldier named Kev, after the hungry kitty bites off the hand of Tom (an excellent Leilani Barrett) another grunt who is guarding the zoo with Kev. This causes that masturbatory conundrum for Tom later on, while freeing the ghost tiger to prowl the streets and speculate on war, God, death, and why lions get all the good publicity.

Meanwhile, other ghosts abound. Kev, who is trigger happy and gung-ho for war, soon has a mental breakdown, tries to cut off his own hand to rid himself of the tiger phantom following him, and dies from a loss of blood. The Kev ghost is then up and about, as is the ghost of Uday Hussein, one of Saddam’s sadistic sons. He carries daddy’s head in a bag and is busy tormenting Musa, a former gardener on the Hussein estate where he created topiary sculptures of animals.

In a play packed with lush and inventive metaphors, that garden is particularly resonant, made even more so by the exquisite set design and projections by Ian Hinz. This is a dark, lovely and forbidding visual experience, which does full justice to Joseph’s intricate and risk-taking script.

As the Tiger, Michael Regnier is a cross between two familiar felines from another show where cats vocalize their thoughts: Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy from Cats. He’s kind of a mess physically (death will do that to you) but he has a wry sense of humor and is deep of thought, exploring the foolishness of violence and mortality. He is seeking atonement even as he casually admits to devouring passersby when he’s hungry. Regnier keeps a firm hold on this fanciful entity and lends enormous heft to the show, even if some of his latter speeches slide off into didactic territory.

The other most compelling character is Musa, portrayed with remarkable finesse by Tom Kondilas. Musa is working as an interpreter for the Americans while also trying not to become victimized by them, the Iraqis, Uday’s ghost, or anyone else. It’s a daring balancing act and Kondilas has never been better as he brings a sense of humanity to the chaos at hand.

As Kev, Daniel McElhaney exudes “crazy soldier guy” through every pore, but he relies a bit too much on volume and noise-making while eschewing some of the quieter, and scarier, aspects of soldiering gone wrong. And Assad Khaishgi has some nice moments as the maniacal Uday, even though his delivery tends to fall into repetitive rhythms. Justine Zapin fashions two female characters—an Iraqi prostitute and Hadia, Musa’s doomed sister—and does so with clarity.

In a play where the production design is so fine, it seems mean spirited to quibble about a couple props. But the American soldiers are lusting after a couple gold items that were pillaged from the Hussein mansion, a gold pistol (which Kev uses to shoot the Tiger) and a gold toilet seat. It’s a shame those two functional yet enormously expensive objects don’t glow brightly golden on stage, for they represent the illusory goals so many Americans had for that insane war.

We will never make sense of the mess that the Iraq War was, nor will we probably understand what the world faces now in that part of the world. But playwright Joseph has created a play that makes us ponder the decisions our government and other people (not to mention tigers) make in this volatile world.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Through May 17 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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