Kansas City and its Bengal Tiger

Throughout the month of December, the Unicorn Theater presented Rajiv Joseph’s play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” As a theatre performance major and a published critic of both film and the stage, it is with an educated opinion which I write that this production was the most viscerally captivating and discomforting play to grace a Kansas City stage in 2014.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is a play which catapults its audience right into the heart of 2003 Baghdad. The plot was derived from an event that was printed in the New York Times just over 11 years ago. A brief 150 word article stated that a U.S. soldier, Sgt. Keith Mitchell, approached a caged tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in an attempt to feed the animal. The tiger attacked, the soldier’s arm was ripped off and his fellow soldier shot and killed the tiger. It was later discovered that Sgt. Mitchell would spend the rest of his days tormented by the events of that day and the tiger.

Joseph’s play  opens and closes from the perspective of the tiger. During the first scene when the soldiers are more or less taunting the tiger, the tiger talks to the audience about the struggle of not being able to control his desire to eat. The tiger tells the audience he does not always mean to attack, but he simply cannot help it—he’s a tiger.

As the play continues, it follows the stories of  two soldiers, a translator and of course, the tiger. The two soldiers are  Tom (Danny Fleming) and Kev (Matthew J. Lindblom). Tom  is attacked by the tiger (Theodore Swetz) and Kev  shoots it. The tiger dies, Tom is discharged due to his injury and Kev is shortly thereafter discharged and hospitalized due to mental instability.

After receiving surgery and a prosthetic hand, Tom goes to see Kev in the hospital. Much to Kev’s dismay, Tom does not come to offer well wishes. While the two were in Baghdad, Tom gained possession of Uday Hussein’s gold-plated gun and wants to know where it is. Kev doesn’t know andcannot focus his attention on anything but the ghost of the tiger that lingers around him, whispering snide remarks in his ear. Shortly after Tom storms out, Kev slits his wrists and dies within minutes. Tom reenlists and is shipped back to Baghdad. He hires a translator named Musa (Michael Thayer) to help him recover his precious gun.

In between scenes with Tom and Musa, the tiger saunters on and off stage to talk to the audience . Just after intermission, the tiger shares an incredible monologue.  The tiger tells a story about the purgatory he is stuck in. One day, a little girl appeared. He describes how the little girl had only one eye and the rest of her face was all but blown off. He continues on to describe how she was scared and tears began to stream from her only eye. In an effort to comfort her, the tiger told her the disintegrated remains in which they stood were God’s garden. He said gardening is God’s hobby, so he builds gardens and tears them down, but soon that one will be beautiful—God works in mysterious ways and what not. However, the tiger’s emotions swiftly change. He starts shouting at God. Mysterious ways or not, God better start figuring things out before the little girl starts crying again. Swetz’s performance changed the temperature of the room.

The second half of the play is a continuation of grief and disorder and the ghosts that never leave. Tom is haunted by Kev and Musa is haunted by the ghost of Uday Hussein (Damron Russel Armstrong). It is revealed that Uday raped and murdered Musa’s sister (Mariem S. Diaz).

Tom’s mission goes awry when Musa discovers what Tom’s true plan is. In the end, Tom is left for dead, and Musa may soon have another ghost to face.

Director Ian R. Crawford knew exactly what he was getting into when he decided to produce “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” and it’s a good thing he went for it. Crawford took on a brutally honest play which challenges faith and integrity andtakes extremely sensitive topics and throws them square in the faces of the audience. It is vastly evident that Crawford truly understands why the public needs theatre. And more importantly, he has the passion, the mind and the resources to provide it.

Lindsay Lillig is the Managing Editor, email her at ljlillig@unews.com

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