When it debuted in 2011, The New York Times called Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Broadway's "First major look at the Iraq war." Rajiv Joseph's play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, confronts the repercussions of war from both sides. It receives its regional debut at Theatre Three in a production directed and designed by Jeffery Schmidt.
"I told the company at the first rehearsal that we would be bringing different experiences and opinions to the table," Schmidt says. "The company spans generations going back to the Vietnam war and spans many ethnicities. In a time of so much global turmoil working on this play has reaffirmed my faith in humanity in a very small, but significant way."
Joseph unravels his story about the devastation of war using a mythical, imaginative construct, in which a tiger living at the Baghdad Zoo can speak to the audience about what haunts him. This state of permanent torment caused by war affects all the characters in the play—two homesick soldiers, the tiger and an Iraqi translator. Blake Hackler, who plays Musa, the Iraqi translator, said a difficult step in his creative process was determining the significance of the things that happen off stage.
"For my character there are three events that I dwell on in the play that I had to get specific about in order to step into my character," Hackler says, divulging that he has written several short stories about Musa. "I often write as my character, but this play has rooted itself much deeper in me."
Another theme of the show is tucked into the title. The Bengal tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh and India trapped in a foreign land. This theme of adventitious entrapment manifests again in the communication barriers associated with being isolated in a foreign land. For this show, Hackler also had to learn to speak passages of Arabic.
"There are full scenes in Arabic that will not be translated for the audience," Hackler says. "But an audience member shouldn't get frustrated. One of the messages the play explores is that of two different worlds colliding."
That dissonance is something that Schmidt incorporated into the set, which he says he modeled after a recent visit to the Guggenheim's exhibit of Picasso's black and white paintings. He says he wanted to explore the same use of shapes and angles, coupled with a lack of color to tell a story or elicit an emotion.
"Of course, in this period of Picasso's life, he painted Guernica in response to events of the Spanish Civil War," Schmidt says. "So, war in any country is distorted and grotesque."
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will be one of three Rajiv Joseph plays to be produced in the next few months at North Texas theaters. The playwright has already been introduced here, when Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage Productions staged Animals Out of Paper in 2010. Sundown Collaborative Theatre in Denton produces Gruesome Playground Injuries in February, followed by a production of that same play at Second Thought Theatre in June. Fly, an original musical based on the Peter Pan story, for which Joseph wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics (Bill Sherman composed the music), premieres at the Dallas Theater Center in July.
"His work is rich with layers," Hackler says, noting that he teaches Joseph's work to his students at Southern Methodist University. "He starts with something that seems surface level and then he mines it for something much deeper."