Ghosts can be a storyteller's best friends. They're spooky, they can defy the laws of physics, they're less predictably predatory than vampires, and they're better conversationalists than zombies. Best of all, we never know exactly what they want. Ghosts resemble us—they used to be us—but their allegiances are unpredictable. Some want to torment us (The Woman in Black, The Shining). Some want us to do them a favor (Hamlet). Still others want to do us a favor (A Christmas Carol). But the ghosts in Rajiv Joseph's 2009 Iraq war drama Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo are a special mystery—even they aren't sure what they want.
The story begins with the titular tiger in the titular zoo, guarded by two bored and not terribly bright US marines (Ryan Higgins and Jonathan Crimeni). One of them shows the other a gold-plated gun he says he looted from the palace of Uday Hussein, along with a gold toilet seat he's stashed somewhere in the war zone. While they prattle on, we get to know the tiger, a ruminating and depressive creature played by Mike Dooly—not in any kind of tiger costume, but with frizzed-up hair, a frizzed-out beard, and a necklace of beads.
"The lions escaped two days ago," he tells us flatly, "liberated" by an American bomb that broke open their enclosure. "Predictably," he says, "they got killed in about two hours," shot by the same military that freed them. (Liberation has its price.) Partway through the tiger's monologue, one of the dumb soldiers sticks his hand into the cage. The tiger impulsively bites it off and is shot to death with the gold gun. Now the talking tiger is a talking ghost tiger, achieving a different kind of liberation with a different kind of price—he's free to wander through the carnage, walk down streets in flames, meet other newly minted ghosts, and haunt the jangled marine who shot him. But, he tells us, "tigers are atheists." So why is he stuck in an afterlife?
The play follows the tiger, the soldiers, the gold gun, and a jumpy gardener named Musa who used to work for Uday Hussein and now works as a translator for the US military, trading one brutal, capricious boss for another. (Liberation, price, rinse, repeat.) The performances all achieve moments of excellence: Higgins plays the tiger-haunted marine like a raw wound, Erwin Galan plays the translator with a scorchingly earnest intensity, and Ali el-Gasseir portrays the ghost of Uday (by the end of the play, there are more ghosts than people) with a diabolical, unctuous glee. But the pacing of the production itself, directed by Michael Place, has some swampy patches—a play that heaps ambiguity upon ambiguity also has its price. Still, there are enough sharp lines from the mouths of sharply drawn characters to make Bengal Tiger a rewarding float through the hellish side of purgatory.