After having to put their play on the shelf in January 2022 due to closures from the Omicron virus, Crow’s Theatre in partnership with Modern Times Stage Company opened their production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on October 14, 2022. This dynamic, thought-provoking work by playwright Rajiv Joseph examines the effects of the Iraqi war on several characters including a tiger, while asking many of life’s impossible-to-answer questions.
The play opens with a minimalist set featuring a Bengal Tiger (Kristen Thomson) in a cage at the Baghdad Zoo. The tiger is being guarded by Tom (Andrew Chown) and Kev (Christopher Allen), two American soldiers fighting in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The tiger is anxious because many of the other animals at the zoo attempted to flee due to the war and were shot. Staring at the caged animal, we have to ask ourselves: “Who is in control here?” When Tom taunts the tiger with food, the tiger bites his hand off, after which Kev shoots and kills the animal.
But tigers never die, right? This tiger, who, by the way, is an atheist when she enters the afterlife, is intent on haunting Kev.
Meanwhile Iraqi translator, Musa, is reeling over the rape and death of his sister by UDay Hussein, the Iraqi dictator’s son. Musa deeply regrets allowing his sister to go alone to the garden, where the attack took place. This garden lacks tranquility and fertility and is instead a place of death.
Much fuss is made by Tom over a golden pistol and golden toilet seat, which he has stolen from UDay. Tom plans to sell the items when he returns to the U.S., but the items are taken by Kev. [Saddam Hussein indeed possessed a solid gold toilet seat, which was estimated to be worth $1.2 million.]
It’s easy to conclude that one of the play’s overarching messages is the effects of war are neverendingly destructive. But other questions that seem to be posed are: Should we accept war as a part of being human? Do humans and animals share the same violent tendencies? Do we keep repeating the same mistakes? Is there really an afterlife?
Kristen Thomson is perfectly cast as the eponymous tiger and central to making this play work. Thomson easily captures the tiger’s innocence about killing (think of the look your cat gives you when she brings you a mouse “present”) and unintentionally humorous in her philosophical monologues in the afterlife, particularly when she wonders what’s wrong with eating animals and people?
Geoff Scovell’s perfectly executed fight scene involving UDay Hussein (played in a terrifying performance by Ali Kazmi) and Musa. Ahmed Moneka as Musa capably evokes the anguish of a brother and the frustration (and humour) of translating from one language to another.
John Gzowski’s underscoring is particularly moving when Musa’s sister begs him to let her see the garden.
Christopher Allen is a powerhouse as Kev. His booming voice and boundless physical energy give tremendous credibility to his being a formidable soldier, yet he is also able to portray the contrasting vulnerability and helplessness he experiences demonstrating the crippling effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Under Rouvan Silogix’s sharp direction, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a fast-paced, violent and darkly funny look at humans’ and animals’ destructive tendencies. Crow’s Theatre has struck gold for the second time this season with Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at Crow’s Theatre is being performed until November 6, 2022. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, which includes an intermission. Purchase tickets online or at the Box Office.
Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, 647-341-7390
You may be interested in reading, “Uncle Vanya at Crow’s Theatre: Chekhov’s Family Drama Delights: REVIEW“.