Performing Arts

Philosophical ghosts haunt stage in ‘Bengal Tiger’

Tiger (Thoedore Swetz) ponders aloud the meaning of life in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at the Unicorn Theatre.
Tiger (Thoedore Swetz) ponders aloud the meaning of life in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at the Unicorn Theatre. Kansas City Star

Rajiv Joseph is my kind of playwright.

He’s not particularly interested in conventions, he’s not out to create the well-made play, and he likes to roll the dice in pursuit of a unique vision. His approach to theater seems to owe little to playwrights who came before.

In his “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” he offers complex themes, vivid imagery and a pronounced desire to challenge the audience in an admirable effort to say something cogent and fresh about the war in Iraq.

You could argue — and I do — that the play’s balance of surrealism, dark humor and violence never coheres as it should. Nonetheless, certain passages are indelible. This play may be unsatisfying, but it will stay in your head.

The piece opens in 2003 at the Baghdad Zoo, which has been looted and whose animals have either escaped or been killed. But not all. Still pacing in his cage is Tiger, the play’s central voice, narrator and philosophical emcee. When Tiger is released from his cage after a flash of violence, he begins wandering the streets of smoldering Baghdad, a ghost who communes with the living and the dead.

The center of gravity in the Unicorn Theatre production, directed by Ian R. Crawford, is Theodore Swetz, one of the city’s best character actors. Swetz brings Tiger to life with an economical, deadpan and yet passionate performance. Much of what Tiger has to tell us is acerbic and amusing, and Swetz lets the language do the work.

Tiger ponders big, unanswerable questions. Why is he still hanging around when he’s already dead? Why would God allow the atrocities and devastation the war has brought? Is God listening? Is God nuts? Is God even there? Swetz articulates these questions with simplicity in a performance that never falters.

In addition to Swetz, the show is buoyed by strong work from fellow actors. (The show is a co-production between the Unicorn and the UMKC theater department. Several actors and designers are graduate or undergraduate students.)

Matthew J. Lindblom is exceptional as Kev, a Marine who hungers for action even though he’s terrified beneath his bluster. The character undergoes a remarkable transition during the play — from blowhard to suicidal head case to wise entity on another plane of existence. Lindblom is in control of the performance throughout, and the results are impressive.

As Tom, a fellow Marine who thinks the gold-plated gun and solid-gold toilet seat he has looted from Uday Hussein’s palace will make him rich when he gets home, Danny Fleming brings a measured intensity to the role. Veteran actor Damron Russel Armstrong exudes chilling charisma as the ghost of Uday Hussein, who appears carrying his slain brother’s head and quietly torments Musa, his gardener who became a translator for the Americans.

Michael Thayer hits the right notes as Musa, who comically tries to decipher American street lingo and who is haunted by the fate of his sister, who met her end at the hands of the sadistic Uday. Supporting roles are filled efficiently by Manon Halliburton, who appears first as an Iraqi woman and later as leper; and Mariem S. Diaz, who plays an Iraqi prostitute as well as Hadia, Musa’s sister.

This play’s unconventional narrative is composed of disparate parts that are awkwardly pieced together. Some scenes are extraneous, and for long stretches Tiger, the play’s most fascinating and sympathetic character, remains offstage. The ghosts in this play don’t seem to follow any sort of inner logic. Some haunt people, some haunt other ghosts. And the “rules” about when, how and if they can interact with physical reality seem arbitrary.

But Crawford and his design team succeed in creating an other-worldly environment for the piece. Sarah White’s scenic design allows the action to unfold in what appears to be a bombed-out palace with graffiti-smeared walls, although a topiary garden, created by Musa for Uday, isn’t what it needs to be — an actual work of art. Kristopher Kirkwood’s lighting is fluid and nuanced. Sarah B. Putts (sound designer) and Lindsay W. Davis (costumes) make important contributions.

Bottom line: This play gives you a lot to think about. The Unicorn production distills its strengths, even it can’t overcome its flaws.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” runs through Dec. 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3820 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.

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