Washington Ensemble Theatre rattles the cage with “Baghdad Zoo”

Kev (Ryan Higgins) reunited with fellow U.S. Marine Tom (Jonathan Crimeni) and his new robotic hand. (Photo courtesy Washington Ensemble Theatre)

A new production of Rajiv Joseph’s acclaimed play about post-invasion Iraq sheds light on America’s changing attitudes toward military intervention abroad.

I invite you to spend an evening with Uday Hussein.

That’s right, Saddam Hussein’s son.

Okay, more specifically, it’s a play starring Uday’s ghost. Saddam Hussien’s sons were quite unsavory characters, but that doesn’t mean their ghosts don’t have something useful to say.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is based on real events from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — Marines were assigned to guard the zoo, where the keepers had fled and many of the animals had been eaten for food or were starving.

In the play, the ghost of the tiger walks the streets of Baghdad haunting the American soldier that killed him. Along with other ghosts of the Iraq war, he tells his story and provides a unique critique of American culture.

The play, written by Rajiv Joseph, had a limited Broadway run with Robin Williams as the tiger, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

The Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) production, which runs through October 7th, is the regional premiere of the work.

Ali el-Gasseir, Co-Artistic Director at WET, and a champion of the play’s Seattle run, says the company selected “Bengal Tiger” because it transcended its topic.

“It’s not just about Iraq. It’s about this meaning-of-life question that’s very beautiful and we all got behind,” he said. “We thought it was the right one to open the season with because it’s still a little lingering summer, and you can see us sweat.”

It was hot. It was also believable, and amazingly immersive for a really small theater. Even sitting in the back row, you’re remarkably close to the action and tense emotion.

Since none of the actors are Iraqi or spoke Arabic, Director Michael Place knew the cast would have to go out of its way to immerse themselves in the production. They got in touch with the Iraqi Community Center of Seattle and the Near East Studies Department at UW. They brought in Iraq War veterans, military experts and dialogue coach Chaouky Kabul, an Arabic language specialist who was recruited by the FBI after 9/11.

He was fantastic for the actors and provided both a knowledge of storytelling as well as a deep history of and experience with this language,” said Place of Kabul. “The actors dove in with incredible dexterity, appetite and put forth a herculean effort to bring the Arabic language to life on stage.”

Despite the serious topic, the play is very funny, even in it’s darkest moments.

Which brings us back to Uday Hussein: He has some really good lines, and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing despite the horror and his calls to violence.

He gives voice to some of the strongest critiques of Americans, and the thing is, they make sense. The character has absolutely no qualms about being full-bore evil, so when he makes a valid point, it gives you pause.

WET has a long tradition of putting on productions that tackle current events. The theater kicked off ten years ago, at the time of the Iraq invasion, with the world premiere of “Laura’s Bush,” a play that included an act of shorts that delved into Abu Ghraib, Halliburton war profiteering and PTSD.

“We’ve always done work that we feel speaks immediately to our society in some way,” said Place “We’ve always looked for plays that are relevant now.”

The crew was putting the finishing touches on the sets last week while Obama gave his nationally televised speech on Syria. I asked Place if he thinks the Iraq War has changed the way Americans feel about military intervention abroad.

“(The) play was written between 2007 and 2010, when the costs of our mis-intended war were apparent to everyone who was listening,” Place said.  “Without question this influenced how we approached this play. The difficulty, costs, length of commitment and ineffectiveness of our time in Iraq is not lost in history as we talk, all over the world, about Syria.”

When I asked Ali el-Gasseir (who has a Libyan & Lithuanian background), if he sees an underrepresentation in popular roles from his cultures, I was surprised by his answer:

“Honestly, after 9/11 the demand for stories about the Middle East has skyrocketed! And that makes me happy because personally I think Islam and the Middle East are very misunderstood and often misrepresented.” he said.  “But I think the more stories told, the more interest grows, the more America investigates, the more we have cross-cultural understanding.”

This kind of humanization is a great step, and can only help to bring cultures closer together.

Maybe if we spend more time with the Udays of the theater world, we can spend less time acting like them in the real world.

Tickets for WET’s production of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” are available here

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