"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" recounts haunting wartime realities from student perspective

A meditation on animalism and the legacies combat leaves behind, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” doubles as a war story and a modern ghost story. The ghost of Saddam Hussein's son, Uday Hussein, played by senior Haider Murtaza, sums up the play with one line: “Americans, always thinking when things die they go away,” he said.

The department of theatre and dance-sponsored production, written by Pulitzer Prize nominee Rajiv Joseph, is set in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

It all starts with a golden gun and a mangy, starving Bengal tiger.

A cocky and immature American soldier named Kev, played with sensitivity by freshman Kevin Raleigh, guards a tiger cage in the war-ravaged Baghdad Zoo along with his greedy friend Tom, played by sophomore Dennis Caughlin. Kev shoots the tiger in a split-second when it bites off Tom's hand, unknowingly entering into a vortex of guilt and fear.

The tiger's soul enters an uncertain purgatory in Baghdad, haunting Kev mercilessly and raising questions about religion, life after death and the true meaning of cruelty. Junior Liam Enright's portrayal of the supposed beast is comedic and honest, striking a surprising chord of reality for an anthropomorphized jungle cat.

“Humans and animals really aren't that different,” Enright said. “Humans just sort of gussy up what they do with culture or whatever, but it really comes down to eating, having sex, sleeping - the same basic stuff.”

Although it's uncommon for a student to direct a main stage production, the theater faculty gave senior Kimberly Olsen an opportunity to select and direct a main stage piece for her senior project as a theater major. The production allowed Olsen to work with her mentors and professors as “collaborators on an equal playing field,” she said.

She chose “Bengal Tiger” to provide a student perspective on the enduring raw issues that the script brings to light - the events of the play having transpired when many current students were too young to understand what was truly happening.

“I really just wanted to challenge myself,” Olsen said. “This was extremely hard - not only extremely hard to direct but to sort of wrap my mind around all these different themes.”

Olsen added her own personal touches to the show to better communicate the cultural context and the play's deep-seated symbolism to the audience.

Video projections of news stories from the time period play during scene changes - an incredibly valuable storytelling device for Olsen's young audience. The production may have even benefitted from a few more of these news reports, rather than just three or four of them.

Olsen also takes advantage of one of the play's central themes, paradise and the Garden of Eden, to provide further insight into the characters. The garden, tended by Musa, a heavily moralized royal gardener turned translator played by senior Ben Bergstrom, is a common setting for the play's most philosophical and touching scenes.

Rather than building the garden's animal-shaped topiaries as cumbersome set pieces, Olsen decided that the actors would freeze as topiaries. They take on positions relevant to the current arc of their individual characters, adding a layer of depth to each scene.

“The more I thought about the state of these topiaries, the more I thought that it paralleled the state humanity is in, especially at this time of crisis and war,” Olsen said. “Mankind - we are burnt, we are crumbling, we are stuck within these crossfires and, for me, the [topiaries] were also that.”

“Bengal Tiger” is simultaneously witty and deeply moving - even earth shattering. The play represents a very uncomfortable loss of innocence, particularly for college-aged people. It makes us question the America we grew up in, and as it chronicles events that have taken place recently in our short lives, we think of them as part of history. It also sustains the notion that this same war and its associated violence continue to be a reality in the Middle East.

Bergstrom emphasized the transition of his character from mild to vicious throughout the play as a lesson in humanity.

“I guess what you could take away from Musa is that anyone is capable of anything, both good and bad,” he said.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” will run at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday Oct. 24 and Saturday Oct. 26 and at 2 p.m. Sunday Oct. 27 in the Robert E. Sinclair Black Box Theatre. Tickets are $10.