The new play in production in K-State’s Nichols Theater, Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” is a little like the 1950 movie “Winchester 73” as told by Tom Stoppard during his “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” period. This is to say that the script takes details we know from other sources and cuts them loose in a flood of philosophizing as, next door, characters try to track down a legendary weapon.
But this is no Western. The play is set in the original city during the second Gulf war. The characters include Uday Hussein, several other Iraqis, a couple of American Marines, and the title character. The Tiger is played, in the solid K-State Theater version, by Sean M. Matthews, whose performance holds the entertainment together.
Joseph’s dialog can be as coarse and profane as that in many recent movies. Potential theatergoers need to be aware of this, and that a sex act will be simulated and a gun fired on stage. And those who attend need to be ready to read the indications in Rebekah Priebe’s costumes so that they can identify the ghosts among the characters on stage at any time.
The Tiger is actually shot and killed during the first scene. A little while later the Marine who shot him, Kev (Deontae Hayden) slits his own wrist and dies. But in this play, ghosts walk. And among them are Uday (Jordan Foote) and one of his victims, young Hadia (Maria Arvanitakis).
In part because of Matthews’s performance, one doesn’t sit looking at the action on the thrust stage and marveling at the numbers of deaths. In retrospect, though, the carnage does seem remarkable. The Tiger attacks Kev’s Marine comrade Tommy (Spencer Rotolo-Utz), biting off his right hand. Tommy seems to have shot Uday dead before the main action begins. And there’s more carnage later.
Given all the destruction, the thoughtful characters—the Tiger and Kev—are going to consider the nature of life, its purpose, and—though all tigers, we learn, are atheists—the nature of our relationship with God. The lead character has the most prompts for philosophic monologues—his memory of two Bengali children he once killed and ate, his disdain for the zoo’s lions who when set free by bombing seem to have gone out and gotten themselves shot at once, and the irony of topiary animals as part of Kathy Voecks’s adaptable set.
The weakness of the script is that the monologues don’t lead us to any conclusion about the significance of the events. Probably the script’s greatest strength is that it demonstrates what happens to characters who are too ready to act and those who are too confused to act on the basis of their experiences. Joey Boos plays a translator for the Marines who used to be Uday’s gardener. He is taunted by the ghost Uday for having acted out of anger, getting results similar to those Saddam’s son got while torturing his victims.
The play’s gun—its Winchester 73—is a gold-plated automatic which Uday was presented by a Saudi prince. After Tommy killed Uday, he took the gun. Kev gets it and shoots the Tommy-attacking Tiger with it. The translator, knowing the history of the handgun, takes it. Then, returning from medical leave, Tommy goes looking for the weapon, which he hopes to sell.
He and the translator go into the desert to find a gold toilet seat that has been secreted there. They meet a leper (Kristina Gent) who is, like Tommy, missing hands. This sort of resonance between like things doesn’t work out in any tidy way in this play.
But the resonation remains. And Matthews and his colleagues get a lot of drama out of the opportunities “Bengal Tiger’s” script offers them in this fast-paced production.