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BENGAL TIGER–a mental and emotional challenge at Ensemble

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

In BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s, surreal dark play, ghosts roam the streets of Baghdad in 2003.   Ghosts of soldiers, citizens, zoo animals, a son of the former ruler of the country.  These ghosts are part of the vivid display of the madness of war, and what it means to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the play opens, we are confronted by a fragmented cage with a “tiger” pacing inside.  The tiger is one of the few animals left in the once magnificent zoo.  The others have been killed by the war, or they have escaped, only to be shot as they followed their natural instincts to forage for food.

The tiger isn’t wearing a tiger suit.  This is not a farcical play or a Disney production.   He is a man, a self-proclaimed tiger, wearing dirty clothing, speaking to the audience without any “animal” imitation or overtones.  This is a production requiring the willing suspension of reality, allowing the animal, the ghosts, the illusions, to become real.  It allows us to consider the search for sanity, the attempt at redemption, and why a man would risk his life for a golden toilet seat.

The play, which was nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer prize, finds two marines guarding what is left of the Baghdad zoo and its animals.  Tom, helped attack one of the palaces of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday.  He found and took a gold plated toilet seat and a golden gun.  Tom, in attempt to feed the animal, is bitten by the tiger. He is shipped home.  After rehab, with a prosthetic hand, he returns to claim his golden treasures.

Kev, the other marine, is a bi-polar psychotic, tortured by the goings-on around him.

There is Musa, a troubled Iraqi gardener, who tended the topiary at Uday’s palace where Hussein’s son seduced and killed Musa’s young sister.

In the desert there is an elderly leper.

Together, these living and dead souls, lead us on a horrifying journey with humorous under-tones.  These are the remnants of the one time cradle of civilization where the theory of laws and mathematics were developed.  A place now living by laws of the jungle.

Joseph’s play is not a traditionally plot-driven script.  It is rather shapeless, not sequential, per se.  It is more a collection of experiences of each of the characters woven loosely together by the question, “Is violence an intrinsic part of our nature or is it something that we learn?

Though oft-praised, the Broadway production opened to mixed reviews.  The Ensemble production, is saddled with the same loosely structured script, which in spite of its dark-comedy billing, doesn’t deliver on the comic part.  Maybe it needed Robin Williams, who played the Tiger on Broadway, to present the humor.


That is not to say that Michael Regnier, who played the tiger, was not effective.  He was, but he played the role straight, adding to the depressing feeling and  hopelessness of people caught up in the cycle of war and destruction.

The other members of the cast were also effective.  Daniel McElhaney (Kev), Leilani Barrett (Tom), Tom Kondilas (Musa), Juliette Regnier (Leper), Mike Faddoul (Iraqi man), Assad Khaishgi (Uday) and Justine Zapin (Hadia).  Accents were excellent and line interpretations carried Joseph’s intent.

Director Celeste Consentino has paced the play well, kept the two-act, two-hour production focused.  Ian Hinz’s projections, Angelina Herin’s costumes and Andrew Eckert’s lighting designs all work to enhance the over-all production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble should be commended for attempting such a monumental work as Rajiv Joseph’s BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO.  The play is not for everyone.  It is filled with depressing thoughts, which hit probably too close to home for many Americans, who, almost non-stop from the 1960s, have been participants in conflict after conflict, and misguided war after misguided war. 

BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO runs Thursdays through Sundays through May 17 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

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