"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" features Rishi Varma (left) as Musa and Abraham Dietz-Green as Kev. (Photo by Justin Barbin)

Hamid Dehghani directs a powerful performance of the anti-war drama “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” written by Rajiv Joseph.

In 2010 the play was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and it played on Broadway for a limited engagement in 2011. Here it is brought to life by an excellent cast of seven Northwestern undergraduates, and open to the public through May 1 at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.

The portrayals are moving and powerful, in particular four leads: Eitan Pessah (class of ‘23) as Tiger, Theo Gyra (‘26) as Tom, Abraham Dietz-Green (‘26) as Kev and Rishi Varma (‘23) as Musa, an Iraqi translator working for the soldiers. The set design (Joe Johnson, ‘23) is spare, efficient and effective. Sound plays a huge part establishing the atmosphere – kudos to Deon Custard, a doctoral candidate in Northwestern’s theater department.

The setting of the play is Baghdad in 2003 during the early days of the Iraq war. It opens in the bombed out Baghdad Zoo where only a few animals remain, including the Bengal tiger of the title, described as “starving and losing his fur.”

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” features Eitan Pessah (left) as Tiger and Theo Gyra as Tom. (Photo by Justin Barbin)

Pacing in front of the Bengal tiger’s cage are two U.S. soldiers, Tom and Kev. Tom had been part of the unit that invaded the palace of Sadam Hussein’s sadistic son, Uday. Tom reportedly had killed Uday and taken as a souvenir a gold-plated pistol owned by the deceased, which Kev is eager to see again and hold. Tom also has hidden another prized souvenir, a gold-plated toilet seat, which he won from his captain in a game of poker.

The event that jump-starts the action occurs when Tiger chomps off Tom’s hand. Tom had been teasing Tiger with a stick of dried beef through the bars of the tiger’s cage. Kev kills Tiger, who transforms into a ghost only Kev can see and hear.

Tiger is both a tour guide and a vocalized conscience for the audience. We follow him as he haunts Kev, Tom and Musa, and muses about the meaning of life, following natural urges, the existence of God and why humans behave cruelly. In the afterlives shown on stage, knowledge and sensitivity are absorbed naturally, allowing these ghosts to see and realize things beyond their abilities while alive.

Although the play is a strong piece of anti-war drama, it is also a ghost story, a psychological reckoning and unburdening, and a painful retelling of a piece of history with very few heroes. Characters take actions they would never have attempted or contemplated outside of war, yet fear, guilt and desperation overtake them. Musa struggles mightily with his nightmares, but is steadied by his pre-war memories of being a gardener. His cry, “I am an artist!” is a declaration of his humanity as well as a plea to silence the ghosts in his head.

The subject of the play is intense, thought-provoking and upsetting with bursts of comedy interspersed, a welcome break during some of the most disturbing recollections. The dialogue includes nonstop profanity, slurs, and racist rants. The play includes scenes portraying physical violence, murder, rape, torture, suicide, prostitution and mental illness. The play is not recommended for anyone younger than age 17.

Remaining performances of the play are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wirtz Center, 20 Arts Circle Drive on the Northwestern Campus. Tickets range from $6 for Northwestern students buying in advance up to $25 for the general public, with service charges for phone and online orders. Mask-wearing and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the past 48 hours are required.

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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