Based on a true story from the front of the Iraq war — the headline read “US Solider Kills Rare Bengal Tiger” — Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo follows the intertwining stories of two American soldiers, an Iraqi translator and a Bengal tiger. Rajiv Joseph’s challenging script reflects on the ghosts of the war, with brutal demonstrations of greed and pulse-pounding conflict.
Jeffrey Schmidt directs and designs Theatre Three’s production, paying close attention to the play’s theme of refraction and miscommunication. His Guernica-inspired set, with angular animal shapes in dismal colors, underlines the script’s interest in the gray area between life and death, right and wrong. And he directs the actors at a crackling, relentless pace.
Blake Hackler’s layered performance is rich and moving, and his Musa becomes a great source of empathy in a stark play.
In 2010, Robin Williams made his Broadway debut as the tiger, which gave Cliff Stephens big shoes to fill in. Stephens is not the only cast member with a daunting role, but all members deliver gripping performances.
When the play opens, Stephens is in his cage at the Baghdad Zoo, being watched by two American soldiers (Akron Watson and Parker Fitzgerald), who are thirsty for more action after accompanying the raid of the Hussein family home.
The performances here bring the show’s depth to the forefront. Fitzgerald and Watson cast a harsh light on the culture of wartime Marines. Fitzgerald unravels into a state of suicidal PTSD with a moving realism; he is the naïve boy who turns savage with a gun in hand. After threatening the Iraqi translator, Musa (Blake Hackler), he crumbles at the hallucination of the tiger he killed.
At the center of the story’s exploration of those gray areas is Hackler’s Musa, struggling to understand aggressive American colloquialisms like “bitch” and attempting to discover the path he wishes to follow. Hackler’s layered performance is rich and moving, and his Musa becomes a great source of empathy in a stark play.
When placed between the Gershwin musical revue Crazy for You and Idols of the King, an Elvis tribute show that opens February 28, Bengal Tiger’s claws protrude violently. This is a show for people with open minds and strong stomachs, but it is worth every second.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs through February 9 at Theatre Three.