This is a confronting play on a number of levels and Director Nick Fagan and his Theatre Guild cast faithfully conveyed that on opening night. They challenged the audience in a conventional sense with strong, violent action and dialogue, but also challenged us through the musings on life and human existence by several characters before and after death.
Set in the early part of the US attack on Iraq’s Hussein regime, the play raises major issues of war, cruelty, avarice and deeper still, the meaning and purpose of life. Several characters convey these themes but it is The Tiger who bears the largest load.
David Grybowski is The Tiger, truly. Early in the play he is shot and killed in the zoo by Kev, one of two US soldiers on guard there. As a ghost he frequently returns to the action, commenting on the conflict of the war and his own internal torments. Important to the success is the bold portrayal of the tiger, not in animal costume, but raggedly dressed as an Iraqi war victim. Grybowski made that work to very good effect.
His monologues are central to the play. Grybowski delivered them with profundity and purpose. His timing and delivery of the darkly amusing reflections were exceptional. He was especially convincing when ruminating on existential issues, often with gruesome dialogue or action running behind and about him. His dryly humorous observations evoked images of Robin Williams, who, incidentally, played the role on Broadway.
The two US soldiers represented much of what was at the time publicly questioned about the Iraq war. Adam Tuominen as Tom, and Oliver de Rohan as Kev, clearly showed their own uneasy relationship, as well as expressing the violence and tumult of war, and its deeply disturbing effects on the lives of the soldiers involved.
A number of scenes quickly developed to a loud, intense cacophony of shouting and screaming in both English and, at times, Arabic. Those scenes were memorable for their anguish, and contrasted strongly with the tiger’s usually more detached commentary.
Nigel Tripodi played Musa, an Iraqi interpreter to the invading soldiers and former gardener to the Husseins. He succeeded in showing the pain and continual inner conflict of his roles, especially when being taunted by Uday Hussein. Uday was forcefully portrayed as scheming, cruel and ever-angry by Noah Fernandes.
The production, well set and well-lit as it was, moved well through the action, particularly in the second Act which was generally the more confident and convincing of the two.
It is no surprise that the Theatre Guild has taken on this very challenging production. It’s great credit to them that they are consistently prepared to break such new ground, and to do so with such surety and competence.