Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Feb 7, 2014
10:27 AM
Stage Write

Haunted by the Ghosts in 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo'

Haunted by the Ghosts in 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo'

PHOTO BY JONATHAN J. MINER

Mohammed Alghamdi's Uday Hussein takes gleeful delight in tormenting Casem AguLughod's Musa in Strollers' 'Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo.'

In a foreign world torn apart by war, conflict and complete moral ambiguity, everything falls away, leaving us with little more than our basest instincts—hunger, pleasure and survival—to cling onto. That’s the murky backdrop of Strollers Theatre’s staging of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, (through February 22 at the Bartell Theatre). Thanks to some strong acting and Suzan Kurry's fearless direction, there’s power and pain amidst the murk

Rajiv Joseph’s play is based on actual historical events—a U.S. solider really did gun down a tiger in the zoo during operation Iraqi Freedom. In the play, the Tiger (John Jajewski) walks the streets/stage as a ghost, pondering his place in the universe and tormenting the other characters.

As the Tiger, Jajewski never stops pacing/stalking the stage, eyeing the audience with a look that mixes wariness and challenge, even when his spirit is pleading for some clarity from his creator. His line delivery is by turns wry, enraged and anguished: When the tiger bemoans that he’s ended up in a place “10,000 miles away from where you’re supposed to be,” he could just as easily be talking about the U.S. soldiers who killed him.

Jajewski’s Tiger gets many of the play’s best lines, but it's Zach Heise, as the hair-triggered solider Kev, who has the toughest assignment. His character’s a grade-A poster child for walking post-traumatic stress disorder, and, as such, most of his early scenes require an almost exhausting level of mania and anxiety. Later, when he’s joined the tiger in stalking the afterlife, he shows remarkable range, nailing a thoughtful and quiet side.  

Everyone in the play is haunted by something, whether it’s the ghosts of those they’ve killed or the ramifications of the decisions they’ve made and the cruel cards fate has dealt them. The gulf between the soldiers and the Iraqis couldn’t be wider:  When we first meet Musa (Casem AbuLughod), a reluctant Iraqi translator who’s looking to return to his original vocation as a gardener, he’s trying to study American vernacular so he can understand his occupiers better. Tom (Charlie Bauer), the solider who loses his hand to the tiger before it dies, couldn’t care less. “You’re all the same,” he barks.  

The counterpoint to all this conflict is, ironically, one of the guys who started it all. As the blood-stained ghost of Uday Hussein, Mohammed Alghamdi delivers an almost gleeful stream of banter with Musa, a man whose life he’s devastated. Hussein’s the only one in the play with any sort of (a)moral certainty, and he’s an interesting and ghoulish balance to the blood-stained shades of gray. Plus, he gets to use a severed head as a stage prop.  

Tiger isn’t an easy play to watch or take in—nearly every scene is brimming with tension, yelling and hostility, and profanity and F-bombs riddles the script like machine gun bullet holes on the walls of a Baghdad slum. But then again, that’s essentially the point: These are scenes from a world that has long since stopped making sense, where violence and instinct are the only cruel realities. Kurry’s cast doesn’t flinch from them, and neither should we.  

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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