All images credit Max Teoh of Alpha Moments Photography

It is always a tiger that draws visitors to the zoo, even more so, if the tiger is an atheist. This premise hooked audiences in the recent Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo play, which has just concluded its run in Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac) on July 9.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a fictional account of the first year of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The story tells of a tiger that haunts the streets of present day Baghdad seeking the meaning of life. As it witnesses the puzzling absurdities of war, the tiger encounters Americans and Iraqis who are searching for friendship, redemption, and a gun made of gold.

Penangpac’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo features a cast made up of actor-director Christopher Preslar, Iz Sulaini, Christopher Culver, Phraveen Arikiah, Kabilan Murali Dharan, Farah Jasani, and Putrina Mohamed Rafie.

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Audiences stepped into the theatre, unexpectedly greeted by a prowling tiger (Christopher Preslar) in a cage, guarded by two American soldiers, Kev (Christopher Culver) and Tom (Iz Sulaini), already in characters. The casts were required to get into their role thirty minutes before the play starts, allowing the audiences time to adjust to the first scene. Incorporating a pre-show to immerse audiences into the play has become the Preslar’s trade signature.

Any actor-director worth his salt avoids stereotypical costuming and behaviour, and Preslar is no exception. Contrasting to Robin Williams’ portrayal of the tiger in a Broadway production of the play, Preslar opted for a subtle feral quality instead of donning dirty ripped clothes, a grizzled beard, and unkempt hair. Preslar’s hair was perfectly coiffed. He donned a pair of ripped jeans to suggest an animal. Thankfully, Preslar was not dressed in a tiger costume. The playwright, Rajiv Joseph, made it clear in his description of the tiger that there is nothing feline about the tiger.

One controversial scene involves Tom receiving sexual favour from an Iraqi prostitute (Farah Jasani). After losing his right hand to the tiger, Tom no longer felt like himself. Everything that defined Tom was made possible by his right hand. He created art with his right hand. What was more frustrating, Tom could no longer perform simple basic human tasks – in Tom’s case, masturbation – leading Tom to seek the help of an Iraqi prostitute who could do the deeds with her right hand.

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However, a fully clothed Tom tamed an otherwise tension-filled scene. Nudity is relevant to the story. If the scene was given a perceived nudity aspect to suggest the ugliness of the situation, perhaps audiences could have better felt Musa – the translator responsible for introducing the prostitute to Tom.  The scene was supposed to be hard for Musa to watch as the prostitute bore a striking resemblance to Hadia, Musa’s younger sister, who was brought to Uday Hussein as a sex slave.

However, credit must be given to Phraveen Arikiah, who played Musa for successfully getting audiences to ride on the character’s emotion despite the lack of nudity in that scene.

Casting Christopher Culver to play Kev, a racist, rude, insensitive, male American stereotype, proved to be the right choice. Culver’s strong stage presence could be attributed to his years serving in the United States Army.

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Some dialogues required the casts to converse in Arabic, a linguistic feat that non-native speakers Phraveen Arikiah and Putrina Mohamed Rafie executed to perfection.

Putrina Mohamed Rafie, as a leper, donned a niqab, so her eyes were the only part of her body exposed to the audiences. But the costume did not limit her performance. With deliberate eye movement, she managed to hold the audiences’ attention.

Equally notable moment in the play was the Muslim call to prayer, the Adzan. The Adzan that filled the hall amidst the chaos on stage somehow begged audiences to wonder if there was a God. If God exists, why does He allow such terror? Or has He long abandoned this place?

The play also presented life’s brutal reality that gnaws at our anxiety daily; everyone dies. However, the characters reappear as ghosts haunting the living. After Kev kills the tiger, the tiger haunts Kev, serving as a consequence to his actions, so much so that Kev commits suicide. Kev then haunts Tom. As a ghost, Kev was philosophical and knowledgeable, a far cry from the brute Kev when he was alive. Perhaps he was not a ghost after all, but a manifestation of human guilt that Tom projects in his mind.

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Credit also goes to the set designer KashTaka and lighting designer Kwan Yong for turning a little room in Penang into a Baghdad zoo through beautiful topiary animals and stunning lights.

As the play drew to a close, the Tiger suggested putting God in a cage in a burning city. The line left audiences in a thoughtful soliloquy. Are we the ones, through violence, war, and greed, introduced sin into God’s creation? How does an individual maintain sanity when surrounded by so much chaos and carnage? What exactly is our purpose on earth?

One thing is for certain, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is not for everyone. It requires intellect to understand the key message of the story. However, there is one thing which many may agree on; Preslar’s direction was aesthetically elegant in a critical commentary on the war in Iraq. One audience member, Muhammad Nasrullah, said, “I felt like it is a gift for me. It truly challenged me to think about our existence.”

Kudos to the director and the team for bringing such a sophisticated and thought provoking play to Penang. Here’s hoping for an encore, be it in Penang or Kuala Lumpur.

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