Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Strollers Theatre (through Feb. 22 at the Bartell Theatre) explores life in a war-wrecked city by giving the dead a voice. At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Baghdad is filled with the ghosts of tyrants, children, soldiers and many victims of murder, including a tiger killed in captivity. Portrayed as a man with an unkempt beard, tattered clothes and gunshot wounds, the tiger (John Jajewski) wanders the streets of Baghdad, sharing his thoughts on religion, life and death.
Tigers are atheists, he says. But when you're an atheist and find yourself walking around in the afterlife, it's time to seriously reconsider your beliefs. He examines questions about consciousness after death, wondering if he's being punished. "I did eat those two kids after all," he reflects. The tiger also haunts his killer as he meditates on the meaning of life, triggering a chain reaction of mental and spiritual crises that affect the entire cast of characters. He first torments an American soldier named Kev (Zach Heise), who is eager to see action and be a hero for his country. Visions of the dead tiger drive him mad, bit by bit.
All of the ghosts, not just the tiger, get to prod the thoughts of their killers. In the process, a story about the moral ambiguity of war unfolds, revealing complex situations that can lead to ignorant, desperate actions.
This complexity can be tedious, with most of the dialogue taking place at 80 decibels and generous amounts of expletives, but the strong cast adds humor to their philosophizing under the direction of Suzan Kurry. Jajewski perfects the tiger's monologues with sharp sarcasm and outbursts of feral rage. Even when he is the only one on stage, he easily pulls other characters into his story, reimagining their conversations with animated gestures. Kev's ignorance is only tolerable because Heise balances the mental anguish with hints of genuine innocence in scenes with Tom, a fellow soldier played by the equally talented Charlie Bauer.
Mohammed Alghamdi turns terrorist Uday Hussein into a witty devil-on-the-shoulder so steeped in his amoral ways that his serial-killer humor adds levity to an otherwise devastating situation. His scenes with Musa (Casem AbuLughod) are some of the best in the play. While there are times when the characters' emotions become overwhelming, the successful juxtaposition of sympathy and disgust makes this production memorable.