A ruined city.
A populace scarred by a despot and the ravages of war.
American soldiers whose lives are forever touched by violence and its after effects.
And the ghost of a majestic Bengal tiger that haunts the landscape.
This is not a description of Rod Serling’s lost episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ These are key elements found in Rajiv Joseph’s play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010, the play comes to Round House Theatre in Bethesda for a September run.
Descriptions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo range from “serious,” “funny,” “bold,” and “surreal.” Actor Danny Gavigan said, “I think we found it is really all of the above.”
Gavigan plays Tom, one of the U.S. Marines stationed in the Iraqi capitol. His first impression of the script went through a change. “After our first read-through, I was blown away by emotional resonance. And I had read the New York Times review calling it a ‘savagely funny comedy.’ I thought that was crazy.”
“A week later, I was running lines with a friend, and we had to keep stopping because we’re laughing our asses off. It’s a dark comedy, but deep and serious comedy.”
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh also had a strong first impression of the play. Ebrahimzadeh plays Musa, an Iraqi gardener and translator. “When I first read it, I couldn’t put it down. I read it again and again.”
“There is so much to this play, it is difficult to put it a nutshell. It appeals in so many ways. I look at it as tragically funny. There are moments you have to laugh or you just might break down.”
Director Jeremy Skidmore said there is indeed more than meets the eye in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. “It is funny. It is also very powerful and moving.” In rehearsal, Skidmore discovered his goal for audiences who attend the production. “We take a journey through an emotional gamut. We felt this a lot as we have worked on the show. I want people to have felt the journey the characters go through.”
About the Play
The year is 2003. Saddam Hussein’s rule has ended and now international forces occupy the city, pockmarked by ruins, with a population trying to co-exist with the troops. After surviving a stand-off at Hussein’s former mansion, U.S. Marine Tom acquires two valuable objects.
“Tom has gotten away with a gold-plated pistol and a solid gold toilet seat,” said Gavigan. “Now he is on duty in the middle of Baghdad and he keeps thinking if he can just get out alive with the gun and toilet seat, he’s set.”
Tom is assigned with fellow Marine Kev – played by Felipe Cabezas – to an unusual guard post. Gavigan explained, “When we meet Tom and Kev, they are standing guard at the bombed out Baghdad zoo, which is nearly decimated. They zoo had housed about 600 animals, but between the bombing and poachers, nearly 550 animals were missing.” The Marines are assigned to guard a prized Bengal tiger.
But there is no War Horse-inspired puppetry or electronic gimmicks at work to portray the captive cat. Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal tiger is personified – literally – by an actor. At Round House, Eric Hissom plays the tiger.
With a man standing in for the tiger, the playwright has endowed the animal with a quick wit and a tongue as sharp as his teeth. But there is still danger. As the play unfolds, the presence of the tiger changes, especially after it attacks Tom and the Marine loses one of his hands. Tom shoots the tiger and it becomes a spectre. Tom’s life is caught in the crossfire.
“The accident sends him back home, and not getting a Purple Heart is a sore point for him. He is embarrassed and he has to get a prosthetic hand,” said Gavigan. When Tom ships home, he is without the gold pistol and toilet seat. With those objects back in Baghdad, he re-enlists and ends up back in the Green Zone.
Returning to a ravaged Iraq, Tom is bitter. He also finds the city changed once again, according to Ebrahimazadeh. “At first a lot of native Iraqis wanted to help out. Becoming translators for the Americans was one way to participate. But after 2003, many translators wore masks, to protect their identity and to protect themselves. Musa starts out very much saying ‘I want to help.’
By the second act of Bengal Tiger , a lot has happened. “Musa and the other Iraqis are not so gung ho,” according to Ebrahimzadeh. A tangled web of circumstances brings Musa together with the amputee Marine.
“His relationship with Tom signifies the change in the view of the presence of the U.S. military. There is fear that the chaos will return.”
Gavigan said Tom hits a wall, so to speak, after he meets Musa. “When Tom returns, trying to profit from the war, he is weakened by his dismemberment. After his encounter with Musa, he realizes he can’t force himself on others.”
From Musa’s perspective, Ebrahimzadeh said, “They are actively trying to get something from the other person. There is so much to their relationship; it is really wonderful and powerful, yet filled with tension. It covers all manner of sins.”
Jeremy Skidmore hopes audiences will stay open-minded when they see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The backdrop is the war and occupation of Iraq, but there is really a larger context. “This play asks big questions and asks them in profound ways,” said the director.
“One of the biggest questions is about violence. Is it learned or is it an intrinsic part of us? Is it permanent and predestined or can we unlearn it?”
Gavigan said, “This play captures the anger, frustration and struggle to identify everyone’s motive and ultimately who suffers in the pathway of other people’s ulterior motive. I can identify with the anger about the war, and I think we were there for wrong reasons.”
Ebramhimzadeh, an activist who has demonstrated water-boarding in front of the Department of Justice, already had feelings about the war. “War is the easy way out; it’s a product of convenience. It’s difficult to actually change something. It is easier to bomb something out of existence rather than deal with it.”
But this is not a simple anti-war play. “In the play, Musa is the people. He shows the beauty and innocence of the people. Through him, you watch how tyranny just overwhelms and tears at everything.”
Ebrahimzadeh also brings a unique perspective to his role as an Iraqi translator. He was born in Iran, a separate country that shares many cultural aspects with neighboring Iraq. For the actor, “it provides an interesting way to bring a side out of a character that most people wouldn’t be generally familiar with.”
“It satisfies a personal part of me,” Ebrahimzadeh added.
“Musa is kind of an everyman representing beautiful people. He is a gardener by trade. Here, our general view of these people and their land is so twisted and distorted. It’s like people say, ‘They have gardens? You mean its not just sand castles?’”
The beauty of the language, the high stakes situation for the characters, the ghost of a Bengal tiger – all combined to provoke and engage an audience. When audiences see the Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Skidmore said, they will find ‘no nice, neat ribbon at the end.”
“It will be interesting seeing how people come away from it,” said Gavigan.
Even though it covers a lot of ground and tackles big questions, Ebrahimzadeh said that is the point. “Everybody should see it. We need this kind of theatre.”
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. By Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Cast: Eric Hissom (Tiger), Danny Gavigan (Tom), Felipe Cabezas (Kev), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Musa), Pomme Koch (Uday), Salma Shaw (Hadia/Iraqi Teenager/Nurse), Nadia Mahdi (Iraqi Woman). Production Staff: Scenic Designer, Tony Cisek; Costume Designer, Frank Labovitz; Lighting Designer, Andrew Cissna; Sound Designer, Eric Shimelonis. Recommended for age 17 and above.