Monday, August 12, 2013

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Tavis Williams as the tiger in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Kalen Manion, Tavis Williams and Matthew Kline.
Ghosts both human and animal haunt the main stage at the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College. It’s a student production of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph.
With the caveat that the show is produced and performed by students, my mixed impressions were that it is a strange dark comedy that is riveting in places and boring in places, and difficult to understand in many scenes.
The stage is large and the almost empty auditorium seemed cavernous opening night. There was a feeling that the actors were being overwhelmed by the space. When they spoke with backs to the audience and when that were upstage they were hard to hear, which made it hard to grasp an already complex and difficult play. Having said that, I must say that it was a brilliantly written play and the students did a laudable job with challenging roles.
The set by John Murphy and lighting by Lillie McCatty were outstanding. The dark and rich purples and greens were beautiful, although when fully lighted the green of the sculpted animals was too harsh.
The story is set in the early years of the Iraq War. Two American soldiers, Tom (Kalen Manion) and Kev (Matthew Kline), are guarding the Baghdad Zoo. All of the animals except one caged tiger have escaped and many have been shot to death by soldiers. The caged tiger (Tavis Williams without tiger costume, barefoot and in ragged clothes) makes wry comments to the audience. He’s hungry and pissed off, and when Tom stupidly tries to give the tiger a snack, the tiger bites his hand off. Kev shoots the tiger which comes back to haunt him and wander the streets of Baghdad pondering life, death and the meaning of it all; and Kev, wracked with guilt for killing the tiger, sinks into debilitating mental illness.
The trope that continues throughout the play is the fight over and search for the gold plated gun and solid gold toilet seat Tom stole from the palace of Uday Hussein (Ryan Petersen), whose ghost also comes back to strut the stage and spout feel-good euphemisms. There are a lot of ghosts in this show.
Rajiv Joseph’s writing is remindful of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, with a few touches of Tom Stoppard thrown in — most noticeably in his use of repetition and his relentless string of F-bombs. One of the funniest sequences in the show is when Musa (Ikaika Ortiz), Uday’s former gardener now serving as a translator for the American soldiers, tries to understand the meaning of the word “bitch.” He understands the dictionary definition but can’t grasp American slang. He’s particularly confused about why a particular knock-knock joke is funny. One of the strangest scenes is when Tom wants a prostitute to masturbate him because he can’t do it right with his prosthetic hand.
The three women in this play, Suzanne Keller as Hadia, Sara Jane Bangerang as an Iraqi girl, and Grace Lindsley as an Iraqi woman and a leper, had to learn Farsi. Keller in particular had to memorize many lines in Farsi, which she delivered with ferocity.
The play is filled with odd, inventive, and often disturbing humor in the midst of death and destruction. The effectiveness of much of the humor was dampened because the stage was too big and open and the audience too sparse. There was practically no laughter from the audience. I suspect it would have been much more affecting in the smaller black box with a larger audience.
The New York Times called this “ferocious” dark comedy "a savagely funny and visionary new work of American Theatre." It is not an easy play to sit through, but it is worth the effort. 

Where: Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, South Puget Sound Community College
When: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Aug. 18
Tickets: $15 for the general public, $10 for students, faculty and staff. Tickets will be available through the Washington Center by calling (360) 753-8585. For more information, visit 

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