Though the play is set against the backdrop of a controversial war and covers contentious issues such as religion, patriotism, government and death, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” avoids the obvious and focuses on the harrowing search for the meaning of life.
Written by American playwright Rajiv Joseph, it is a philosophical play that follows a Bengal tiger after death as he travels the streets of Baghdad searching for the meaning of life in the midst of the Iraq War.
The play is the fifth directed by Leonardo Cirigliano, a senior majoring in theatre arts. Cirigliano said the topics in the piece are presented in a fresh, unconventional way, giving the audience a chance to form their own interpretations.
“When I first read the play it was very interesting to me because it is open-ended,” Cirigliano said. “It’s not just a play that has a straightforward plot where you are spoon-fed everything, but rather you have to continually think about the things that happen and
continually have a point of view.”
The production, Cirigliano said, has helped the team grow throughout the year — both closer together and closer to their characters.
“It’s really been a joy and a surprise to see how things develop,” Cirigliano said. “When I start rehearsals I have my
own vision of how the show is going to play out, but the actors bring so much of themselves, that in the end, that vision ends up changing into something much better than the original plan.”
During the dress rehearsal, one performance stood out above the rest — that of Ricardo Soltero-Brown, a senior
majoring in theatre arts, who plays the only character based on a real person — Uday Hussein.
His intense and realistic performance is reminiscent of Christoph Waltz’s in the film “Inglorious Basterds.” Soltero-Brown manages to turn a character the audience should hate into a person who is not only sometimes likable, but who may seem underutilized and desired to be on stage more.
Soltero-Brown said the play reflects interesting themes about obligation toward
country versus toward oneself.
“It asks some really interesting philosophical questions, and they’re not over anyone’s head,” Soltero-Brown said. “I think it’s interesting to see a struggle for an answer dramatized in front of you.”
Another captivating performance is the philosophical, yet often comedic performance of the tiger, played by Ryke Stearns, a theatre performance graduate student. The character is not a literal interpretation of a tiger, but a personification of the animal in human form.
With the help of the ideas and views of the audience controlling the character creation, Stearns said the tiger is the heart and soul of the play.
“Everything that is going on is happening through the animalistic essence of the tiger while the audience watches,” Stearns said. “He communicates directly with the audience and creates this bond and becomes their character on stage. It is very easy to side with and love the tiger just because he is totally confused and questioning everything just as humans do all the time.”
While taking a creative yet simplistic approach in set design with the use of movable cubes that rearrange to form the various scenes, the production is being kept as authentic as possible through the costumes and the use of the Arabic language.
To help prepare the actors learn the Arabic lines, actress Sumera Ullah, a theatre arts graduate student originally from Pakistan, recorded the lines for the other actors to learn.
“I think they have done a great job learning their lines,” Ullah said. “The actors who picked it up fastest were those who already spoke a second language.”
The play is produced by USF Theatre’s Honors program and runs from May 30 to June 1 at 8 p.m. and June 2 at 3 p.m. in TAR 120.
The show is recommended for adults only because of mature themes, gun violence, language and nudity. Admisson is free, but donations are suggested.
“Even though the play deals with really pressing, philosophical issues, it is not something to be scared of because it is never boring,” Cirigliano said. “That’s what I love most about this play. It’s deep and important and relevant but it is also fun.”