The ghost of a Bengal tiger stalks the streets of war-torn Baghdad asking the most fundamental question of all: Why am I here?
The Baghdad Zoo, where he had been imprisoned, has been vandalized, violated and looted. Animals have been stolen or killed. Now the tiger tries to make sense of his fate — to be shot by an American with a golden gun taken from the palace of Uday Hussein, one of the Iraqi dictator’s two slain sons.
That’s how “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” opens. The Unicorn show, produced in partnership with the University of Missouri-Kansas City theater department, is anchored by veteran actor Theodore Swetz as Tiger. This is the local premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s play, which traveled a circuitous journey from a graduate-school mini-play to a Broadway production with a Hollywood star.
“Bengal Tiger” is one of two December productions at the Unicorn that have absolutely nothing to do with the holidays — a reflection, presumably, of a theatergoing audience that isn’t necessarily looking to have its collective heart warmed. John Logan’s one-woman show “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” stars Donna Thomason and offers a caustic portrait of the legendary Hollywood agent. The show played Broadway with Bette Midler as Mengers.
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Artistic director Cynthia Levin has long viewed the Unicorn as a place for people to get away from saturated images of sleighs and mistletoe. Indeed, the only time the Unicorn books anything to do with the holidays is to make fun of them, such as “The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge” and “Inspecting Carol,” both of which satirize “A Christmas Carol,” or Ron Megee’s “A Very Joan Crawford Christmas.”
“I just think there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t necessarily want to turn on the radio every day and listen to Christmas carols,” said Levin. “This is usually the place to come when you’ve had enough good Christmas cheer shoved down your throat.”
That said, Levin regards both the surrealistic “Bengal Tiger” and the irreverent “I’ll Eat You Last” as substantial plays that pose meaningful questions.
“‘Bengal’ brings up these larger-than-life questions about spirituality — and does God exist? — that we should be looking at at the end of the year,” she said.
Joseph, 40, doesn’t write conventional plays, as you might suspect if you saw the Fishtank Performance Studio production of his “Gruesome Playground Injuries” last year. In the case of the dreamlike “Bengal Tiger,” the spark that made him want to write the play occurred in the real world in the early days of the war in Iraq, in which the U.S. and its allies topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.
“The inspiration was pretty basic,” Joseph said from New York. “There was an actual incident that happened in Baghdad back at the start of the war. It was a little article on the back page of The New York Times. And it was interesting. It was just surreal. These American soldiers were there, and there was a tiger there and he bit off one of the soldiers’ hands. It struck me as an immediate metaphor.”
To Joseph, it indicated that sometimes real life can be as strange as an absurdist play. He hit upon an idea: What if the tiger could speak? And what if his ghost haunted the soldier who killed him?
It began as a 10-minute play that became the first scene of the full-length work.
“The tiger was apolitical,” he said. “He’s not Iraqi or American. He’s a ghost. It struck me as a really interesting way into a story about the Iraq war.”
Tiger’s thoughts can be comic and edgy. He’s dismissive of the dumb lions who escaped the zoo only to be killed. After declaring that all tigers are atheists, he admits that becoming a ghost certainly throws that belief into question.
After a series of workshops and two full productions in Los Angeles directed by Moises Kaufman, the show opened on Broadway in 2011. Robin Williams played Tiger, a philosophical character clad in shabby street clothes, not a tiger costume.
Joseph said he became friends with Williams during the run and was devastated by news of his death. Williams’ star status enabled the production necessary for the Broadway run, and Joseph said Williams was sensitive to the fact that he was joining a company of actors who had been together through two previous productions.
“I befriended him,” Joseph said. “He was a wonderful man — a really terrific actor and a wonderful man to have in the rehearsal room. He was very down to earth. He had lunch with us every day. He was very aware that he was taking another actor’s role and he worked his butt off. He really wanted to get it right. He was very studious, very attentive.”
Joseph grew up in Cleveland. His mother was a white American, his father an Indian immigrant. As a mixed-race kid, he developed a unique perspective. In some ways he understood the mainstream, but he always felt like something of an outsider. He said his background didn’t directly influence the writing of “Bengal Tiger,” which depicts Arabic-speaking Muslims as well as young American soldiers. But he served more than three years with the Peace Corps in Senegal, where he came to view Islam sympathetically.
“There’s a xenophobia that kind of swirls around and has since 9/11,” he said. “Bill Maher did it recently, kind of equating Islam with a kind of intolerance and warlike attributes that are actually anathema to the religion. I think what people are responding to is a grotesque expression of Islam that expresses itself in certain impoverished cultures.”
Joseph was a writer on “Nurse Jackie,” the Showtime series, for two seasons. And he’s working on a new musical based on “Peter Pan” called “Fly.” To date, “Bengal Tiger” is his biggest success. He said there has been little interest in turning it into a film, either for theaters or for television. That’s OK with Joseph, because he thinks the play works best on stage.
“I think one of the things I like about the play is that it would be very difficult to adapt to a film,” he said. “How would you do it? Would you have a real tiger? Would you do CGI? I kind of feel that ‘Bengal Tiger’ shouldn’t be a film.”