“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Gina Luna
- The Capitol Hill Times -
When determining a production’s success, one element to consider is how well the audience responds. Washington Ensemble Theater’s current play, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” captivates its public from the time that it fills the salle. The script is witty and smart, and the local actors serving it are professionals.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” written by Rajiv Joseph, is a challenge to mainstream theatergoers. Centered in Baghdad, as the title suggests, the play is set at the beginning of the Iraqi War, during the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Killed early on by an American soldier (spoiler alert), a Bengal tiger weaves in and out of the drama, considering the meaning of life. Finding itself in the afterlife, the formerly-Atheist tiger must also reevaluate the purpose of death. America’s conflict with the Middle East and war are themes, but, more significant, it’s a story that asks a lot of basic existential questions, and demands answers from the audience.
“It’s, by far, the biggest production team that we have had working at WET,” Ali el-Gasseir, Associate Producer of Intiman Theater and Co-Artistic Director at WET, told The Capitol Hill Times.
To excel in a theater that is admittedly more compact than Broadway, where “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” showed in 2011 with Robin Williams in the title role, WET assembled a team of experienced directors, designers, cast and experts, including three founding members of WET, with the entire production taking only a few months to come together from the time that rights were secured in March. Casting happened in May, and by the end of June the Director (Michael Place), Light Designer (Jessica Trundy), Sound Designer (Rob Witmer), Set Designer (Tommer Peterson) and Costume Designer (Heidi Zamora) were at work. Rehearsal began the first week of August.
Mike Dooley, nominated for Outstanding Actor in this year’s Gregory Awards, plays a believable tiger – not the type that crouches on the floor and is painted with black and orange stripes, but the kind that you would invite over for lunch to discuss philosophy. The 2012 winner of that same award, Ryan Higgins, is cast as “Kevin,” a young, imprudent soldier who fares better in death, and accidentally torments “Tommy,” an ally soldier played by Jonathan Crimeni. Tommy moves the plot forward in his quest to reclaim a stolen, gold-plated pistol, and Higgins’ performance is so convincing that the audience is left wondering what the actor’s personality is like outside of theater.
Two Ensemble Members make the cast: el-Gasseir (nominated for the Gregory Awards’ Outstanding Supporting Actor in 2012) and Leah Penning. el-Gasseir plays Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, known for erratic and violent behavior. Penning has two roles, an Iraqi prostitute as well as “Hadia,” one of Uday’s victims and the sister of the show’s “Musa;” Musa being a conflicted Iraqi gardener and translator, preformed by Erwin Galan. Keiko Green completes the troupe, as an Iraqi woman suffering from leprosy.
To portray their roles with accuracy, the team reached out to the Iraqi Cultural Center, the University of Washington’s Near and Middle Eastern Studies Program and a military consultant (Steven Denton) who had served in the Iraq War. That wasn’t enough. They also hired an Arabic Language Expert (Chaouky Kabul) and an Accent Coach (Kayla Walker) to train them in the exact dialect. And it paid off. After seeing the production, for a non-Arabic speaker, it’s hard to believe that none of the cast were fluent or, at least, previously familiar with the language.
“We had rehearsals where we were just drilled in Arabic. Lines were written out phonetically for us, and we would record how to say them,” el-Gasseir said.
In preparing for his role as Uday, el-Gasseir researched the real Uday Hussein. “But I also looked at how the character was meant to serve the play. What was his function?” Pinning Uday as a mephistophelian force in the play’s pursuit of God, el-Gasseir becomes a seductive provoking force, “a voice telling you to do things that you should not do.”
In the hour and a half of showtime, it’s all believable. Look around the room and see the audience’s faces painted sometimes with toothy grins, other times with fear, needing to look away for a few seconds to calm anxious nerves. The actors make Joseph’s script proud, and his unchanged dialogue provides conversation for the commute home, resting in the mind for days ahead.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” runs through October 7, and tickets are available for $15 or $20. Washington Ensemble Theater (www.washingtonensemble.org) is located at 608 19th Avenue East.