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Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer-nominated play gets an uneven production that never finds a suitable rhythm or momentum
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO by Rajiv Joseph (Crow’s Theatre/Modern Times Stage Company). At Crow’s Theatre’s Guloien Theatre (345 Carlaw) until November 6. $45-$75. crowstheatre.com. Rating: NNN
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo is a strange beast of a play. Full of intense imagery and intriguing ideas, Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated script is more interesting to talk and think about, and perhaps study, than it is to see, at least in this uneven co-production by Crow’s Theatre and Modern Times Stage Company. The play is like a stoned undergraduate’s scattered, late night utterances, containing moments of brilliance but just as much rambling gibberish.
It’s 2003 and the Americans have just invaded Iraq. Two lowly soldiers named Kev (Christopher Allen) and Tom (Andrew Chown) are shooting the breeze, guarding the tiger cage at the Baghdad zoo. This, however, is no ordinary tiger; as played by Kristen Thomson, she walks on two feet, is outfitted in a white shirt, black vest and tan pants (not a stripe to be found) and voices her disgust that she, a proud Bengal Tiger, is so far from home and stuck behind bars in this war-torn country. Talk about absurd situations.
Things get a lot more absurd when Tom tries to feed the animal and instead gets his hand chomped off. Kev, who had been admiring Tom’s golden gun – looted, along with a golden toilet seat, from the palace of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay – shoots the animal dead. Which sets off a series of events that ricochet like a stray bullet from that golden gun.
The Tiger, now imbued with a philosophical streak, returns in ghost form to haunt Kev; Tom, returning after a while from America with a plastic hand, wants his golden spoils back; and connecting both stories is another character named Musa (Ahmed Moneka), a translator who worked/works as a gardener at that same plundered palace.
A play like this – one that toys with genre and tone – needs really confident direction. And Rouvan Silogix – recently named artistic director at Modern Times – isn’t quite up to the task. The in-the-round staging ensures transitions and entrances and exits are handled smoothly, and Lorenzo Savoini’s sets and lighting make effective use of the space’s height. John Gzowski’s sound design adds to the hallucinatory feel of some scenes.
But Silogix never finds a rhythm or momentum to propel the two-hour play to its conclusion, and some of the performances are pitched at such a high, hysterical intensity for so long that they lose any power at all (the actors’ default setting seems to be “shout a lot”). Whether this is to evoke the insanity of war, or toxic masculinity, is unclear.
Thomson, who almost acts like the play’s narrator, has an easier time getting us to savour both her character’s philosophical and religious epiphanies and her sly, subtle humour. And Moneka delivers a rich and layered performance of someone caught between cultures who’s trying to maintain his dignity in an inhumane situation. (A scene in which he queries the meaning of the word “bitch” is a highlight.)
As a result, the play feels like a collection of scenes – some sharp, others slack – that never coheres into a consistent work. It’s got claws, but they’ve been clipped.