Theater Review: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at Round House Theatre

Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-nominated drama gets a gripping staging in Bethesda.

By: Jane Horwitz

There’s a whole lotta yellin’ onstage in Round House Theatre’s riveting production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Rajiv Joseph’s play, which ran on Broadway in 2011, takes place during the Iraq War, and two of the central characters are US Marines under a lot of stress. So they yell and brandish weapons and occasionally use them.

Yet Joseph doesn’t let that bluster go on forever. If he did, the play would be nigh unbearable. Instead, he laces the bluster with magic realism and spiritual yearning, and the conceit largely works. The result is an evening of lyrical beauty amid horror. You can’t take your eyes or your mind off it. There’s also a talking tiger who looks like a man and haunts people—but more on that in a minute.

The portrayal of the two soldiers feels crudely over-the-top at first, like a caricature. It’s clear that Joseph intends them as flak-jacketed symbols. They embody everything about America’s big-footed, oft-bungled presence in Iraq. Then just when you decide the whole metaphor is just too heavy-handed, Joseph injects the restorative magic that will, by the final blackout, allow the audience to understand and forgive some, if not all, of these flawed characters.

As the lights come up, we find Tom (Danny Gavigan) and Kev (Felipe Cabezas) guarding the damaged Baghdad Zoo in 2003. Tom shows Kev the solid-gold gun he snatched from the home of Uday Hussein, dictator Saddam Hussein’s notoriously brutal elder son, who was killed by American forces. Tom intends to go home rich. Still, he’s a steady and experienced soldier compared with Kev, a brash greenhorn with a big mouth and bad judgment.

The tiger of the show’s title looks for all the world like a mere man. That’s because he is: Eric Hissom plays him with a beard, a slouch, baggy clothes, and a rueful take on life and war. His tiger is a treat, and he has much to say, even after his fatal encounter with the two soldiers. His ghost remains, hovering at the edges of the action and remarking wittily on it. The tiger acquires more intellect in the afterlife and wonders why God lets war happen. (This tiger has existential issues.)

Everyone who dies in this play reawakens wiser than they were in life—with the exception of Uday Hussein (Pomme Koch), presented as a psychopathic monster of a ghost. It is Uday’s spirit that visits Iraqi interpreter Musa (the excellent Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Musa works with Tom and Kev, who insult him and ask him nothing about his life before the war, when, we learn, Musa worked for Uday as a gardener and created beautiful topiaries in the shapes of animals. A murder that occurred in the garden tears at Musa’s heart.

Jeremy Skidmore’s direction may encourage too much macho posturing in the early scenes, but he’s a sensitive actor’s director, and he layers on grace notes as the story proceeds, gently folding in the afterlife theme, keeping it matter-of-fact, and getting blisteringly strong work from his cast. Special kudos must go to Ebrahimzadeh for his tragic, funny, wonderfully realized Musa.

Designer Tony Cisek’s handsome ruin of a set gets the dark-and-light tonal mix just right. Three Moorish arches of convincing weight fill the stage, with delicate latticework lacing behind them. All the action takes place in and around these arches, as other bits of scenery are added or removed. When some of Musa’s tattered topiaries roll onstage behind the arches in a second-act flashback, it’s a throat-catching moment.

Andrew Cissna’s painterly lighting washes the rear horizon with shifts in mood and hour. Composer and sound designer Eric Shimelonis uses Middle Eastern flutes, and the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, to subtle effect. Frank Labovitz’s costumes look lived in and genuine, and he has grim fun with Uday Hussein’s awful, shiny suit.

You may not wish to remember the Iraq War so soon and so vividly. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo brings it back anyway, then insists on digging from the rubble a benevolence of spirit, even if it doesn’t blossom fully until after death.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is at Round House Theatre in Bethesda through September 30. Running time is two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. Tickets ($10 to $61) are available via Round House Theatre’s website.