What do you call a play that classifies itself as a comedy but is a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the drama category? Starting this weekend, Round House Theatre is calling it “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
Written by Rajiv Joseph, “Bengal Tiger” takes place shortly after the United States’ invasion of Iraq. A tiger haunts the streets of Baghdad, serving as the conscience of Americans and Iraqis who are searching for answers to some of life’s most difficult questions.
The show debuted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., in May 2009, and in March 2011, it opened on Broadway featuring actor and comedian Robin Williams in the title role — a quick-witted, biting and sarcastic tiger.
Although Williams — or anyone for that matter— playing a tiger seems like enough to garner a few laughs, the role is not what makes “Bengal Tiger” funny.
“The tiger is not portrayed in a feline manner,” says Eric Hissom, who plays the role in Round House’s production.
“The playwright is pretty clear he wants the actor playing the role to very much be a person playing a tiger,” adds director Jeremy Skidmore.
In fact, Hissom won’t wear a striped costume or mask on stage. The audience only knows he is a tiger because he tells them so.
“He’s just a guy talking and asking big questions...but he happens to be a tiger,” says Round House’s producing artistic director, Ryan Rilette.
“Bengal Tiger” will be Rilette’s first show with Round House. He joined the theater company in August after a stint as the producing director of Marin Theatre Company in California.
Hissom says the humor in “Bengal Tiger” comes from the playwright’s treatment of issues like cultural misunderstandings.
“There’s a lot of humor in the culture clash between the Iraqis and the Americans,” says Hissom.
“Comedy is based in honesty and truth,” adds Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, the actor who plays Musa, an Iraqi gardener. “There’s innocent humor from Musa who doesn’t fully understand sarcasm and doesn’t get jokes.”
Despite its comic relief, “Bengal Tiger” centers around some very dark themes. Set against the backdrop of war, the show looks at whether violence is intrinsic (as it is for beasts like tigers) or learned among humans.
As a director, Skidmore says he struggled to convey the brutalities of war due in large part to American society’s high tolerance for violence.
“One of the big challenges is we’re so potentially desensitized to violence, so it’s a challenge to make the things that are supposed to be tense...[and] violent, still seem scary,” says Skidmore. “There are night raids in so many movies and documentaries...[I was] trying to find ways for scenes to still have tension even though we’ve gone through so much repeat exposure to things like that.”
Although “Bengal Tiger” has been well received by critics, its rare combination of comedy and tragedy makes it a crap shoot among audiences.
“We have a show that could go either way,” says Hissom. “It could easily be that an audience doesn’t find it that funny...we as performers have to prepare for widely different reactions.”
Rilette says he plans to use the reaction to “Bengal Tiger” as a barometer for his new audience.
“I don’t really know how they’re going to respond to this play because I don’t know them,” says Rilette. “I’ll learn a lot about this audience with this piece.”
Skidmore says he knows firsthand the range of emotions “Bengal Tiger” can evoke in an audience member.
“It ran the gamut of emotions,” says Skidmore, remembering the first time he read the script. “It made me laugh, it punched me in the gut, it made me think.”
Skidmore says he hopes his audiences have a similar reaction; that they leave the theater thinking about the questions “Bengal Tiger” leaves unanswered.
“I hope that’s something that people take away…I hope they come away chewing on those things.”
Broadway may call it a comedy, but Hissom says it’s impossible to put “Bengal Tiger” in a box.
“It doesn’t fit a category or genre,” says Hissom.
And for Ebrahimzadeh, that’s exactly what he loves about the show.
“It’s really hard to find a play like this,” says Ebrahimzadeh. “If I wasn’t in it, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”