Theater isn't supposed to be comfortable. Naturally pushing an audience to the limit shouldn't be overly prevalent but when it is done and it is done right, it is well worth it.
Such is the case with Rajiv Joseph's brutally challenging, Pulitzer-prize nominated play A Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo and Theatre Three's gritty production does the play justice.
Bengal Tiger explores the Iraq War from multiple psychological perspectives. The play opens upon two US marines stuck guarding the last tiger (Cliff Stephens) in the Baghdad Zoo. After being provoked by the soldiers, the hungry tiger bites off the hand of Kev (Parker Fitzgerald) and is promptly shot by his colleague Tom (Akron Watson).
The tiger's ghost walks the streets of Baghdad during the remainder of the play, haunting the unfortunate Tom and philosophizing on epistemology and why God doesn't answer his frequent plea for an answer.
There is a suffocating sense of chaos and unrest throughout the play and this production that never lets up. Whether it is a confrontation between Iraqi translator Musa (Black Hackler) and Kev who returns to Iraq with a new hand in search of his gold gun, or the ghost of Uday Hussein (Mike McFarland) tormenting the seemingly meek Musa, someone is always reminded of their past, questioning their role in this war or engaged in an indecipherable battle between two languages.
Joseph has written a play exploring the emotions he, and so many other Americans after the advent of the Iraq war struggled, and continue to struggle with. He takes his audience on a journey, which is in actuality an attempt at understanding.
The seemingly never-ending conflict between the play's diverse characters and the unrest of the ghosts of the deceased seem to powerfully represent that in war, just as in death, the consequences, both emotional and psychological, far outlast the conclusion.
One has the sense that the callous treatment of Musa by Tom and Kev as portrayed in the play was, and is, typical of a war into which many are thrust with little to no education concerning their purpose there. Through Musa's own tortured mind however, the audience is offered the revelation that war is, for Iraqi's, just as complicated as it is for the Americans.
Throughout all of this is the tiger. The often times comical character played by Stephens in a sense represents the rest of us. Although he's not ostensibly a part of the war, he feels the effects of the conflict as closely as those who are at least on the surface, more involved.
The performances in Theatre Three's production, directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, are strong. Watson's performance as Tom is slightly weak and flawed, but as the play goes on, it almost seems fitting as a portrayal of how we have stereotyped the marine. If not altogether accurate, you'll recognize the persona of the immature soldier who joined the army looking for action, violence and pussy. Lessons must be learned though and Tom's character, along with each of his fellow players, develops a gradually more mature understanding of the nature of conflict and his role in it.
Other highlights of the production include McFarland's Uday Hussein. His portrayal of the superficially gentle, frighteningly persuasive method of Hussein's most famous son could not have rang more true. His character is despicable in the most sinister manner. Hackler's Musa is also stellar. The poignancy with which Hackler faces Musa's past and his inability to reconcile what he sees around with him with the country he has known is in turns heartfelt and angry.
Theater, especially when it concerns an epoch of history we are all emotionally involved in, isn't supposed to be easy. Theatre Three's Bengal Tiger and its honest look at a complicated period of time is worth the intensity, and it's the opinion of this reviewer that those who stick it out will be rewarded for their effort.