Stage Door Review

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

✭✭

by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Rouvan Silogix

Crow’s Theatre & Modern Times Stage Company, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto

October 14-November 6, 2022

Tiger: “This place is lousy with ghosts. And the new ones are irritating

On the eve of its first performance last season Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at Streetcar Crowsnest, the show had to be cancelled due to a Covid lockdown. Now Rajiv Joseph’s 2009 play has finally opened and had its Toronto premiere. The long wait raised expectations high as did Gruesome Playground Injuries (2009), Joseph’s first play seen in Toronto. Sadly, the reality is that Bengal Tiger is repetitive and poorly imagined. It has one simple point to make and makes it three times and virtually all questions raised remain unresolved by the end. What keeps the play afloat are the fiercely committed performances of the entire cast.

The action is set in Baghdad in 2003. As a result of the Iraq War begun that year, Saddam Hussein has been overthrown (on April 9, 2003) and his two sons Uday and Qusay have been killed (on July 22, 2003) by American Forces who now patrol the country. At the time that Joseph wrote Bengal Tiger, a civil war had broken out between Shia and Sunni Muslims and American forces would not be withdrawn from Iraq for another two years.

The non-naturalistic play begins in the Baghdad Zoo with a monologue by the Bengal tiger kept there. She (he in the original) laments the stupidity of the other animals in reaction to recent bombings. She is finds the lions especially foolish for fleeing the safety of the zoo only to be gunned down in the streets.

Interleaved with Tiger’s speech is a discussion between two Marines guarding the zoo, Kev and Tom, about the attack on Uday’s palace. Tom claims he’s the one who killed Uday and he took Uday’s gold-plated gun as a souvenir. When the Americans were raiding the palace, where everything was gold or gold-plated, Tom also took Uday’s solid gold toilet seat and has hidden it as his way to riches after the war. Tom shows Kev the gun. Tom also teases Tiger causing it to bite off Tom’s right hand. In reaction, Kev shoots Tiger and Kev takes Tom off for help.

If a talking Tiger directly addressing the audience were not non-naturalistic enough, Joseph shows that when Tiger dies she then steps out of her cage because she has become a ghost. This event poses several religious and ontological questions. The three main Abrahamic religions assume that animals do not have souls, so how can Tiger have a ghost? Tiger herself is an atheist, so does her present state mean there is a God? But, if there is a God, why would he create a being whose sole purpose is to kill other beings? And if ghostliness is some sort of purgatory between life and death, what is Tiger being punished for – for killing, for being herself? Tiger does regret killing two children one time in the past and wonders if she can finally lose her ghostly status if she atones for that guilt.

Tiger isn’t the only one with questions. After Tom is sent back to the US for treatment, Kev starts seeing the ghost of Tiger. Kev concludes that he is being haunted because he killed Tiger and the thought starts to drive him insane. Before Act 1 is over Kev is on suicide watch in the mental ward of a military hospital.

Parallel to the story of the Marines and Tiger is that of Musa, now an interpreter for the American forces and formerly Uday’s gardener. Musa’s greatest creation is a topiary garden where he has trimmed all the shrubs to look like animals. Musa, too, is haunted – he by the ghost of Uday, who carries along with him Qusay’s head. Since we know that Musa did not kill Uday, we wonder why Uday is haunting him. But the reason is soon revealed. Musa provided his own sister to Uday which resulted in her torture and death.

By the beginning of Act 2, Kev, who died while trying to cut off his right hand, has himself has become a ghost and is haunting Tom, who has returned from the US with a prosthetic hand. Indeed, the first line of Act 2 comes from Tiger who has been wandering around Baghdad and is dismayed at what she has seen: “This place is lousy with ghosts. And the new ones are irritating. They’re walking around wide-eyed ... What happened to me? Where am I? You’re dead and you’re in Baghdad. Shut up”.

As the synopsis should demonstrate Bengal Tiger really has no plot. Joseph shows us three incidents in which a once living person or animal has become a ghost who haunts a specific person. The audience gets no points for guessing the connection because Joseph spells it out. Three people – Kev, Musa and Tom – are literally haunted by their guilt. That’s it. Tiger’s series of religious and ontological questions is never answered.

How can both humans and animals be ghosts, or are they just symbols of other people’s guilt? If the second is the case, why does Joseph present them as ghosts who ponder their non-dead, non-living nature? Why does Joseph make ghosts feel they are atoning for a past crime if they are only symbols for other people? Why does Joseph also give the ghosts access to all knowledge? Why, then, if they have access to all knowledge do they not know why they are ghosts? How, for example, can Tiger, who has universal knowledge, mistake Musa for God?

What Joseph has signally failed to do in Bengal Tiger is to construct an alternate reality with observable rules. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child constructs an extraordinarily more complex fantasy world than Bengal Tiger, yet the rules are clear and we can understand the course of the action because we understand the rules of the fictional world.

In Bengal Tiger the nature of Joseph’s fictional world is totally unclear. Ghosts have no physical bodies as Tiger notices after she’s dead and has left her body. Yet, Joseph also has her say she’s hungry and has her go out to kill to eat. Why does Tiger feel hunger or need to eat if she has no physical body? Three main characters have become ghosts to haunt people. But if Baghdad is now “lousy with ghosts”, as Tiger says, who are they haunting? The little girl ghost Tiger speaks with doesn’t seem to be haunting anybody and has no guilt to atone for.

Besides Joseph’s failure to conceive a consistent fictional world, the text of the play itself suffers from repetition and padding. Uday’s speech to Musa long outlasts its welcome and falls into repetition. How many times is Tom going to ask Kev the same question, “Where is my gun?”, before he drives us crazy too? How does Tom’s masturbation scene in Act 2 in any way move the plot forward? After Tiger’s ghost has haunted the living Kev to madness and death, what further function does she have? She provides superficial Philosophy 101 speculations, but otherwise she has become unnecessary to the story.

Given that Bengal Tiger has no plot, has no consistent world view and has no logical conclusion, all that makes the play watchable are the actors’ performances and luckily the entire cast is in top form. Chief among them is Kristen Thomson as Tiger. Tiger’s personality, both alive and as a ghost, is marked by irony, derision and exasperation. It is a tribute to Tomson’s acting ability that she can give Tiger’s one-note point of view such variety. She adds a tone of wonder when Tiger steps out of her body and sees herself lying on the floor of her cage and and a tone of awe when Tiger first steps into the topiary garden Musa created. Kristen has the gift of making anything she narrates sound intriguing even if, as too often in the play, it has no point.

The one character Joseph has written who has a complex nature is Musa, expertly played by Ahmed Moneka. Moneka shows Musa as racked with guilt even before he sees the ghost of Uday and finally discovers its source. His Musa moves from terror, to common sense to bravery to cowardice, all with an undercurrent of self-loathing. His action facing Tom in the second last scene makes no sense but Moneka at least makes us believe for a moment that Musa is acting out of some sort of existential frustration.

Of the other characters, Christopher Allen as Kev displays the greatest range. At the start of Act 1, Allen makes Kev comically stupid, concerned only with sex and using so much profanity when speaking that what he says often makes no sense. By the end of Act 1 Allen frighteningly shows us Kev plunging fully into hysteria. In Act 2, however, now that he is a ghost and has access to all knowledge, Allen’s demeanour and manner of speaking have totally changed. Kev speaks in polysyllabic words, has philosophical musings and can name all eight bones in the wrist and appreciate the miracle of construction that human bodies are.

Andrew Chown is initially impressive as the bossy Marine Tom, who constantly denies he is friends with Kev. Chown plays Tom as a jerk, but at least as a semi-intelligent jerk. Joseph’s writing for Tom severely deteriorates after Tom returns from the US. Chown, unfortunately, has not arrived at a way to make Tom’s annoyingly repetitive speeches interesting.

As Uday Hussein, Ali Kazmi has a rather shallow role compared with his Astrov in Uncle Vanya at Crow’s just last month. Kazmi plays Uday as a boastful, egotistical psychopath who ghostly status seems not to have sparked any reflection on spiritual matters as it does in Tiger or Kev. It is really too bad that Joseph requires Uday constantly to carry Qusay’s head with him. A basic theatrical maxim is that a gruesome object should be seen only briefly on stage. If seen over time, we start to think how the object was made and what it was made of, both of which decrease the object’s startling impact.

In other roles, Mahsa Ershadifar and Sara Jaffri are excellent. They are required to speak both English and Arabic and well convey passion and distress in both. Ershadifar is especially impressive as the Leper that Musa and Tom encounter, lending her an aura of supernatural mystery which we realize has been strangely lacking in a play with so many ghosts.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set and lighting and Ming Wong’s costumes are evocative of the time and place. Rouvan Silogix’s pacing is not as tight as it could be, but he does pull off one particularly arresting scene when Kev breaks into an Iraqi home, the inhabitants plead for their lives and Musa attempts at interpreting are totally useless. Then and only then do we get a frightening picture of the chaos of war.

In Bengal Tiger Joseph seems to want to out-absurd the inherent absurdity of the Iraq War. A play like David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) simply and more effectively uses reality to reflect the absurdity of the US-led coalition’s decision to go to war for non-existent reasons in the first place.

Now the Iraq War and the controversy around it have faded. Joseph’s play about people haunted by guilt can no longer count on an audience to share that experience. Another war and its potential consequences have superseded the Iraq War in most people’s minds. If the philosophical musings in Bengal Tiger led anywhere and if Joseph’s depictions of life during war were anything more than ill-conceived fantasy, then Bengal Tiger might still resonate. As it is, Bengal Tiger seems just a peculiar artifact of another time that does not have the complexity of plays we are used to seeing from Crow’s Theatre or the Modern Times Stage Company.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Christopher Allen as Kev, Kristen Thomson as Tiger and Andrew Chown as Tom; Christopher Allen as Kev and Kristen Thomson as Tiger; Sara Jaffri, Ali Kazmi as Uday, Andrew Chown as Tom, Kristen Thomson as Tiger, Christopher Allen as Kev and Ahmed Moneka as Musa. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.crowstheatre.com.