The other night I had the privilege of attending the opening of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, which is a dark comedy set during the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. I didn’t really know what to expect and as I enter the theatre from behind a big black screen, I am immediately stunned by the beauty of the “stage”. I put quotation marks around the word stage, as what is before me is far from a regular stage. The audience is arranged in a square outline around what will be the stage, with only a foot or two of floor separating the seats from where the actors will be.
Iraqi carpets demark what will be the stage, all in a shade of red, and fitting together almost perfectly. In the very center, there is a large cage, with a small wooden trunk In the middle and a spotlight shining down from above. I am immediately drawn into the drama of the piece with the set, knowing that I am about to be pulled into a totally different world, with conflict at the centre.
The Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo has been a work in progress for over a year as the Crow Theatre had been all ready to go with a production in January of 2021 when everything was shut down by another COVID lockdown. The amount of detail and care the producers have put into the play shows- every small detail has been thought of and as the actors move around the stage you almost forget that this is a fictional tale.
The play moves quickly and has the perfect balance of dark comedy and dramatic moments. In one scene Uday Hussein, played brilliantly by Ali Kazmi, is carrying around the severed head of his brother and you are caught between laughter and horror, not knowing which way to turn. It is in these moments that you are truly struck by the brilliance of Rajiv Joseph and the bravery of the actors for playing such gut-wrenchingly emotional scenes night after night. The entire cast and crew deserve every second of the standing ovation.
And just a little spoiler for those who do not know- the Tiger is played by a human. In human clothes and not some sort of Halloween-type costume. Not just played, to be honest, but brilliantly played by Kristen Thomson. Thomson seems to steal every scene with her portrayal of this Bengal Tiger, with these deep existential questions about life and death. I wish I could say more, but I am not sure how to describe just how beautiful and intense she actually was.
If you are looking for a play that makes you think and laugh, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is the one for you. I am still stuck in quandary a few days later and I doubt I am the only one.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is playing at Crow’s Theatre at 345 Carlaw Ave from now until Nov. 6th, 2022. Tickets can be bought here.