Haunted by the Ghosts in ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’

Haunted by the Ghosts in ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’
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.