Theatergoers in search of serious fare need look no further than Lookingglass and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
Directed by Heidi Stillman, the award-winning, Tony-nominated play by Rajiv Joseph marks an uncommon departure from Lookingglass Theatre’s usual in-house repertoire. Fair warning—this play is not for the timid, nor the occasional theater fan looking purely for light-hearted entertainment. “Bengal” is intense—the story of two U.S. Marines on guard duty at the Baghdad Zoo, resulting in a lost hand, lost mind and lost souls all around.
Artistic Associate Troy West takes on the role of the tiger, played in New York by Robin Williams. If you are wondering, “Does that mean it’s funny?” then, yes, the tiger does make a few humorous quips and observances. But it’s not a comedy. West is outstanding as an animal without a conscience, trying to decide if he should adopt one. As the animal ghost that inhabits the stage for the length of the play, he serves as a moral compass of sorts for the remaining, tormented characters.
JJ Phillips is mesmerizing as Kev, the naïve, I-wanna-be-a-badass soldier responsible for killing the tiger and as a result, haunted until his own sad end. Looking to make sense where there is none, Kev relies on his friend Tom, who first falls victim to a tiger’s hunger, then to guilt, then to greed. Walter Owen Briggs’ performance as a soldier without a cause is gritty, intense and heartfelt.
Rounding out the main characters are Anish Jethmalani as beleaguered translator Musa, Kareem Bandealy as Uday, yes Uday, Hussein, Amy Carle as an Iraqi woman and leper, and Atra Asdou as Musa’s sister Hadia. Musa’s tortured existence is very well-played by Jethmalani—especially during the play’s climax and the horrible consequence of his actions.
I joked with a friend that I was having a hard time trying to reconcile the concept of Uday Hussein as comic relief, and that should sum up the tone of the play. There is relief found in the irony and sarcasm peppered throughout the dialogue, but for all intents and purposes, this is a play with no happy ending—be prepared for loud gunshots, and an above-average amount of blood and death throughout.
Well-staged and impeccably performed, Kev, Tom, Musa, Uday, Hadia and the Tiger will have you thinking about the true costs of war long after you head home.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is playing at Lookingglass Theatre, inside Chicago’s historic Water Tower Water Works at 821 Michigan Ave., through March 17. Tickets are $36-70 and available at the box office, online or by phone at 312-337-0665.
Photo: Liz Lauren
Kelly Konrad is Make It Better’s senior editor and the in-house expert on things to do on Chicago’s North Shore. She is also pretty fanatical about books—you can follow her reviews and recommendations on Chicago Now.