A play with teeth about war's lasting effects

Shocking, thought-provoking and funny play about a tiger and the war in Iraq.

Editor’s note: This play is for mature audiences ONLY. Parents, exercise extreme caution.

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS — If you want to get metaphorical, war’s a beast.

It’s a vicious beast that ruins lives, kills, lingers, stalks and haunts, refusing to die.
“Mission Accomplished!” one might recall “W” hailing to troops.
We’ve come to learn that’s not so and more threats have emerged.
Playwright Rajiv Joseph reminds us how war can haunt in his dark, disturbing, bold, thought-provoking play, “Bengal TIger at the Baghdad Zoo” that’s surprisingly and biting funny. 
The Pulitzer Prize finalist is on-stage in a riveting Ensemble Theatre production through May 17.
There’s no live, extended battle scenes; the Novocain that is the 24-hours news cycle has made us numb to such scenes.
Unfortunately, some of the projections contain those images. Later in the play, another image, a moon-lit sky and stars, is too peaceful for the corresponding harrowing scene.
Andrew Eckert’s lighting is appropriately non-realistic and Ian Hinz doesn’t overdo the set design, allowing us to focus on the characters.
Joseph has found a unique, clever way to illustrate war’s devastating effects without belittling war, its victims and those left to grieve.
The play’s a metaphor-laden, highly-symbolic piece about the preoccupation with materialism in war’s supposed aftermath, war’s after effects and the emotional toll of battle. It’s symbolism, some of which is confusing, is open to interpretation.
The setting is partially a zoo in 2003 Baghdad, just after the U.S. invasion.
The ghost of a grumbling, philosophizing, and at times even casual tiger roams the streets of war-torn Baghdad. 
The predator’s played by a bushy-bearded, mussy-haired, scrappy, frustrated, thoughtful, dry-witted, scratchy voiced and nuanced Michael Regnier.
Tom (a commanding, yet convincingly pained, exasperated and desperate Leilani Barrett) is a mature and orderly marine. He’s a no-nonsense man of the military, an older brother figure of sorts to the impulsive Kev (Daniel McElhaney, in a performance suggesting a young, immature wild man convinced that war’s a video game).
Ironically, Tom makes the knee-jerk, unwise decision that leads to the play’s inciting incident. He tries feeding the tiger beef jerky, teasing it after the animal rejects it and forcing the meat into the feline’s mouth. The big cat chomp’s Tom’s hand off. Kev comes to the rescue, killing the tiger.
But the ghosts of war remain precariously close, including that of the tiger, who literally haunts Kev to death. Meanwhile, Kev’s ghost joins the tiger in the afterlife, haunting Tom.
In a neat parallel, the ghost of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday terrorizes Musa, the translator/gardener assigned to aid Tom and Kev in their work.
"Americans! Always thinking that when things die, they go away,” the maniacal and, yes, beastly dead Uday tells Musa. “I’m never going to go away.”’
Uday’s portrayed by a sharp-voiced, ferocious Assad Khaishgi. He imbues the character with a gleeful brand of evil characterized by an undercurrent of deceptive playfulness, carrying and casually communicating with the head of his killed brother, Qusay.
The heart of the play is that war, unlike many of its victims, doesn’t die. The work’s humor arises from Joseph’s unorthodox way of getting that message across.
One can’t help but laugh at a dead tiger wondering if a) there is a God and b) if he’s in Baghdad as punishment for his “tigerness,” namely devouring humans. What’s he to do? He’s a tiger! 
“It was lunch,” the predator says unaffectedly about two small children he once devoured.
As ridiculous as it sounds, the comment can make us think about our own bestiality...whether it’s the result of nature or nurture and our need for redemption.
The playwright could focus less on the nature of the afterlife; it not only adds little to the play, it prolongs, overstuffs and confuses. That’s also true with references to a topiary garden, with sculptures forged from foliage made to look like various animals.
Under Celeste Cosentino’s direction, the production sometimes suffers from some scenes in which dialogue lacks spontaneity. And there’s one character, a leper (Juliette Regnier), who comes across as too cartoonish.
But for the most part, it’s some the best acting you’ll see on a stage.
In particular, McElhaney, in the role of Kev, is heartbreaking when the character spots the tiger’s ghost. He manages to breath so fast, speak so incoherently and vulnerably and shake with such frightening reality you want to rush him to a mental hospital.
It’s a stark contrast from the bravado McElhaney’s Kev puts on at the beginning.
Tom Kondilas as translator/gardener turns in an equally strong performance. The American actor speaks in a convincing accent and transitions smoothly from mild-mannered to a confused, harried, frustrated and lost individual. He becomes someone he detests.
War can do that to a human being, turning us into a beast akin to a ferocious tiger or the heartless Uday.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at akrause@norwalkreflector.com

WHAT: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
WHEN: Through May 17. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights
HOW MUCH: $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and $12 for students with valid ID. Call 216-321-2930.