Three Surprising Things: Strollers’ ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’

Three Surprising Things: Strollers’ ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’
The titular tiger has a lot to say about life (and afterlife).

One of the greatest things about live local theater is its power to surprise us, to defy our expectations and shake our sense of what we think we know. That said, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to have at least a little sense of what you’re getting into when the lights go down. Strollers Theatre’s upcoming show, Bengal Tiger in Baghdad Zoo, is one of those plays that benefits from a little pre-show contemplation. Stage Write spoke to director Suzan Kurry about what drew her to stage Rajiv Joseph’s play about the existential costs of war, and came up with a few surprising things.

1. Yes, there is a tiger. And it has an existential crisis.

No, not an actual tiger. An actor (in this case, John Jajewski) who plays one both in life and as a ghost in the afterlife. Joseph’s Pulitzer-nominated play is inspired by an actual event from the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003: A U.S. soldier who was part of the troops sent to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein was injured by a tiger—a tiger he subsequently shot and killed—in the city zoo. In the play, the tiger still gets shot and wounds the soldier, but he has a lot to say, about his own situation and that of the humans around him.

“Before the tiger dies, everything is clear—he’s hungry, he kills, he eats,” says Kurry. “But in the afterlife, he thinks about the things he’s killed and what that means to him. ” The parallels between the tiger’s crisis and the soldiers, both in the play and in real life, are real and intentional.

2. The plot involves a gold-plated gun and a golden toilet seat.

Possession of these seemingly random objects—the former belongs to Uday Hussein—become symbols of financial freedom for one of the two U.S. soldiers the play focuses on—the one who loses his hand to the tiger. It’s an example of one of the ways the participants in this theater of chaos and war, many of them suffering the effects of severe post-traumatic stress disorder, struggle to come to terms with their experiences and new post-war reality.

“For the soldiers, you’ve got this whole PTSD versus thoughts of being successful and relevant going on,” explains Kurry, who was drawn to the play in part because of the interesting setting and characters. “They’re asking things like, ‘Why am I here? Why was I there? This isn’t what I thought would happen.'”

These are the sorts of questions that don’t typically trouble the field of battle. “In a situation like this, you don’t get to debate the order to go kill people,” says Kurry. “That’s not a philosophical conversation you get to have in the moment.”

3. The director listened to the playwright.

Kurry admits Strollers’ staging won’t be flashy. Aside from props (like damaged topiary) necessary to give the sense that the play’s set in a place that’s been destroyed, she and her production crew have taken a minimalist approach. But she followed the playwright’s directions explicitly when it came to language. The script features Arabic, and Joseph is adamant about productions not using subtitles to sidestep it.

“I think he wanted the audience to rely on its own sensibilities to understand what’s going on,” says Kurry. Strollers’ production cast Arabic-speaking actors in a couple of key roles, including that of Uday Hussein.

Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo opens Friday, January 31, and run through February 22 at the Bartell Theater. More information on tickets can be found here.