Review: The Bengal tiger at Baghdad Zoo is a strange beast

Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-nominated play gets a patchy production that never finds proper rhythm or momentum

Photo by Dahlia Katz

BENGAL TIGER AT BAGHDAD ZOO by Rajiv Joseph (Crow’s Theatre/Modern Times Stage Company). At the Guloien Theater at Crow’s Theater (345 Carlaw) until November 6. $45 – $75. Evaluation: NNN

Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo is a strange theatrical beast. Full of intense imagery and intriguing ideas, Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated screenplay is more interesting to discuss and ponder, and perhaps study, than it is to see, at least in this uneven co-production between Crow’s Theater and Modern Times Stage Company. The piece sounds like the scattered words of a stoned student, late at night, containing bright moments but just as much disjointed gibberish.

We are in 2003 and the Americans have just invaded Iraq. Two lowly soldiers named Kev (Christopher Allen) and Tom (Andrew Chown) shoot the breeze, guarding the tiger’s cage at Baghdad Zoo. This, however, is no ordinary tiger; played by Kristen Thomson, she walks on two feet, is dressed in a white shirt, black vest and beige pants (not a stripe to be found) and expresses her disgust that she, a proud Bengal tigress , being so far from home and stuck behind bars in this war-torn country. Talk about absurd situations.

Things get much more absurd when Tom tries to feed the animal and instead gets his hand gnawed off. Kev, who had admired Tom’s golden pistol – looted, along with a golden toilet seat, from the palace of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay – slaughters the animal. Which sets off a series of events that ricochet like a stray bullet from that golden gun.

The Tiger, now imbued with a philosophical bent, returns in ghost form to haunt Kev; Tom, returning after a while from America with a plastic hand, wants his golden loot back; and connecting the two stories is another character named Musa (Ahmed Moneka), a translator who worked/works as a gardener in that same looted palace.

A piece like this – a piece that plays with genre and tone – needs really confident direction. And Rouvan Silogix – recently appointed artistic director of Modern Times – is no match for it. The staging in the round ensures smooth transitions and entrances and exits, and the sets and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini effectively exploit the height of the space. John Gzowski’s sound design adds to the hallucinatory feel of certain scenes.

But Silogix never finds a rhythm or momentum to propel the two-hour piece to its conclusion, and some of the performances are launched at such high, hysterical intensity for so long that they lose all power (the default setting of the actors seems to be “screaming a lot”). Whether this is to evoke the madness of war or toxic masculinity is unclear.

Thomson, who almost acts as the play’s narrator, has an easier time making us savor both his character’s philosophical and religious epiphanies and his sly, subtle humor. And Moneka delivers a rich, layered performance of someone caught between cultures trying to maintain their dignity in an inhumane situation. (A scene in which he questions the meaning of the word “bitch” is a highlight.)

As a result, the piece looks like a collection of scenes – some sharp, some loose – that are never cohesive in a cohesive work. He has claws, but they’ve been clipped.