Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo is, to put it simply; NOT a pretty play staged by penangpac. There are no painted rainbows with mystical unicorns. Not a musical with fur kids and everyone goes home with a feel-good factor.

Director Christopher Preslar is not one who takes the easy road. Preslar’s journey to Asia. His integration into the local performing arts scene at penangpac. All these tally up to big-ticket items.

As American, as they come, Pressler tackles big issues. Not little ones.

Rajiv Joseph, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama shows surreal, chaotic and multiple disturbing scenes of the war in Iraq in his play.

In fact, it is a hard topic. War and the effects of war. With animals and ghosts and haunting.


Pressler the actor plays the Tiger, but of course. Not a ferocious majestic beast but one that is scrawny. Slowly starving. The irony is, Tiger is behind bars and heavily guarded.

Who would guard a zoo in a war zone for God’s sake?


Things like these happen. In real life as well. The ludicrous decisions that happen during war, happens during the time of peace too. If the absence of war is the equation called “peace”.

As so it goes.

Darkness falls; the set is eerie, topiary animals hang in the bioluminescent light. Two US Marines stand guard armed with M16 triangle hand guard.

The Tiger prowls and growls. This is not the Jungle Book.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac
The Bengal Tiger is heavily guarded by US Marines in the eerie opening scene with the topiary animals hanging in the bioluminescent light. Photo: Max Teoh Yeam Chuan


The invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition has toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. The palace has been bombed and looted of all its golden finery.  Saddam Hussein’s two sons are dead.

On stage, the show opens with a caged lone Bengal Tiger (Preslar) guarded by two US Marines, Tom (Iz Sulaini) and Kev (Christopher Culver). The soldiers are ordered to keep looters out and the remaining animal in the zoo in.

Tom boasts of hidden loot taken from the palace of the late Uday Hussein and show off a golden gun.

Tiger ponders his fate; being left behind while so many other animals escaped. Tiger overthinks and blames his nature of being an animal. Eat, mate, seek safety, and, above all, survive.

Eating has gotten Tiger in to trouble before.

Driven by fear and hunger, Tiger bites off Tom’s hand and Kev shoots Tiger, killing him.

Tiger decides to follow and haunt Kev for killing him.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac
A depressed Kev reaches out desperately to Tom for friendship. Photo: Max Teoh Yeam Chuan


In another part of the city, Musa (Phraveen Arikiah) the former gardener of Uday Hussein was forced to be a translator to the Americans. The sensitive Musa is repulsed by the war. He battles his wits to survive.

Watching the actors play out the atrocities of war is a shell shock. The play is candid and bombards the audience with numbing images.

War is not a game to be played, to unlock new tanks, weapons, gear or to win points.


Watching Musa, the audience might wish to perform gestures like a pinch, multi-finger swipe to erase the scene.

Alas, the effects are not something that can be swiped away on, say on a smartphone.

The scenes are held together by a thin thread. The bitten off-hand, the prosthetic hand, the severed hand, the worthless hand. Ultimately meeting the leper who has stubs where her hands have fallen off.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac
Tom ordered Musa to translate for him as he sought the services of a prostitute. The woman was more interested in seeing how his prosthetic hand works. Photo: Lu Jia Chen

The haunting.

The tiger haunts Kev. Kev commits suicide. Kev haunts Tom.

Uday Hussein haunts Musa.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac
The sadist Uday Hussein banishes a golden gun and torments Musa repeatedly. Photo: Max Teoh Yeam Chuan


Symbolism is used throughout the play. The lighting and sets. The creepy surreal hanging animal topiary. The sadist Uday Hussein would taunt the gardener, Musa, “Where do you think the water comes from to have a garden like this?”

In the middle of the desert, Musa loses his youngest sister to Uday (Kabilan Murali Dharan). A horrific reminder of Uday’s career of rape, torture, and murder.

Uday’s predatory and sadistic nature destroys Musa. His ghost continues to haunt Musa and torments his soul.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo | penangpac
Musa, a military translator kills Tom in a leper colony when the golden gun exchange for military weapons fails. Photo: Lu Jia Chen


The memories and haunting continue to affect the living.

Alter the consciousness of the survivors.

As much as it affects the rest of us living ‘carefree lives’; the survivors are still trapped and caged by ghosts.

The cost? Thousands of US troops killed in the misadventure. And we, like Tiger, continue to rant against God.

God is silent.

There is no answer. In death and even after death.


Director | Christopher Preslar
Actors | Christopher Preslar|Iz Sulaini | Christopher Culver|Phraveen Akikiah | Kabilan Murali Dharan | Farah Jasani | Putrina Mohamed Rafie
Executive Producer: Dato’ Faridah Merican
Artistic Director: Joe Hasham OAM

WARNING: This play is about war and includes violence, gunshots, bombings, sexual situations and strong language.

Feature Photo: Lu Jia Chen

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