Lookingglass Theatre’s Gritty BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO Is All In The Eye Of The Beholder

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The circle of life gets turned on its metaphorical head in Rajiv Joseph’s 2009’s play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo which is currently receiving its Chicago premiere at Lookingglass Theatre. This gritty work is a horrific and satirical look at the Iraq war where purgatorial ghosts are as real as the humans they haunt. Originally directed by Moises Kauffman, Bengal Tiger has played in both L.A. and Broadway (featuring Robin Williams as the Tiger), and though a finalist for the Pulitzer, received very mixed critical reviews. Now the play has been brought down to its dramatic essence where the quality of the actors have ignited this work into a far more meaningful drama on valuing of a life.

The play opens with two U.S. Marines, Kev (JJ Phillips) and Tom (Walter Owen Briggs), guarding whatever animals remain at the Baghdad Zoo shortly after the invasion. The caged tiger (Troy West) explains to the audience that most of the other animals were shot as they escaped to freedom. As the tiger’s carnivorous hunger grows, he bites off Kev’s hand and is then mortally shot Tom. The dying tiger gives a self-eulogy as the play moves into two different spheres of consciousness where the dead try and reconcile their instincts that made them kill.

Meticulously directed by Heidi Stillman the overall theme unveils itself has more of a notion that every action has and equal and opposite reaction. Each character’s deed becomes his death knell. Whether is a pilfering American soldier or an Iraqi translator bent on revenge against the dictatorial family that raped and murdered his sister, Joseph’s play will keep you on the edge of you seat while at the same time eliciting your sympathy from what would seem at the surface, the most unsympathetic of characters.

The reason this play succeeds is the quality of the actors Ms. Stillman has cast including the brilliant Mr. West as the questioning tiger; the downright creepy Kareem Bandealy who gives us a manic Uday and Anish Jethmalani as the anguished Musa. But it is the extraordinary performances of Mr. Briggs and Mr. Phillips that will live with you long after you walk out of the theatre proper. Their once simple relationship as serviceman gets morphed into a much bigger questioning of brotherhood, loyalty, trust, love and forgiveness with Mr. Phillips giving one of the best performances I have seen is a very, very long time.

How we value life and death, whether we be animal or human, is all put out for there for us to examine. What is trivial to one person can be a Garden of Eden to the next. It is all in the eyes of the beholder and in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo we get to behold the best and worst in us all.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs through March 17, 2013 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Chicago’s historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (at Pearson). For tickets, please call (312) 337-0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.com. For calendar information, please visit www.TheatreInChicago.com.