Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Black Mirror Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of The Realistic Joneses

Kalen Riley and Don McClendon
Photo by Catherine Hopkins
Walpurgisnacht comes early in Rajiv Joseph's play about the 2003 invasion of Iraq: one unsuspecting American soldier is swept into primal violence right away, thanks to a Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Later, another enlisted men loses his mind in a harrowing night raid on a private home in the Iraqi capital.

After all that comes intermission at the Kranzberg Arts Center, and the line for the bar seemed unusually long. Finally! A modern play that's good for concessions, with both an intermission and the verifiable need for a stiff drink.

But act two is comparatively soothing, notwithstanding a lot of intense scenes with Uday Hussein, son of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Generally, it's a lot more metaphysical after the break because, as actor Don McClendon (elegant and mystical as the tiger) points out, post-invasion Baghdad is suddenly full of ghosts. Beyond that, the plot turns on a familiar device, the smuggling of gold out of a country ravaged by war—think Kelly's Heroes or Charade as two movies that revolve around the search for missing gold after World War II. But this is 2003, and not "The Good War" of the 1940s. In Bengal Tiger, the search for gold is tainted and grotesque, centering on Uday's gold-plated .44, and a gold-plated toilet seat stolen from the palace of Saddam. These stage props add an obscene tone to naked human greed, in an excellent production by Black Mirror Theatre.

Director Catherine Hopkins draws intensely real, focused performances from her cast, including Brian J. Rolf as a weary translator who follows the U.S. soldiers through this foreign land. As Musa, Mr. Rolf is haunted by the ghost of Uday (blood-curdling in a performance by Chuck Winning) and by bittersweet memories of Musa's younger sister (Hailey Medrano), lost to him in the tyranny of the Hussein dictatorship. The actors who play the two American soldiers, Eric Kuhn and Kalen Riley, are shockingly good: Mr. Kuhn delivers unexpectedly high drama, and Mr. Riley goes from backwoods idiocy, to searing madness, to dry comedy in this script finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Nearly as much as the search for profane gold or the search for healing, there is also a search for God: a deity who is all powerful, but unwilling (or unable) to intercede on anyone's behalf. The frustrated spiritual quest is marked by riddles and comedy, which elicit a koan-like sense of intellectual surprise. Still, the metaphysical element has trouble gaining territory here. Everyone on stage does well with their urgent prayers—but the soul of man is as ruined as Baghdad is itself.

Black Mirror Theatre's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, through August 4, 2018, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 01 N Grand Blvd, St. Louis MO. For more information visit

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Eric Kuhn: Tom, an American Soldier
Laura Kyro: an Iraqi woman
Don McClendon: a Tiger
Hailey Medrano: Hadia, a young Iraqi girl/Leper
Kalen Riley: Kev, an American soldier
Brian J. Rolf: Musa, an Iraqi translator
Charles Winning: Iraqi man/Saddam Hussein's son Uday

Creative Team:
Director: Catherine Hopkins
Stage Manager: Mikaila Kraft
Lighting Design: Michelle Zielinski
Sound Design: Catherine Hopkins
Set Design: Gwen Wolffson
Props/Costume: St. Louis Repertory Theatre
Set/Props Crew: Jared and Kyra Goudsmit

The numerous passages of dialog spoken in Arabic are coached by a consultant who wishes to remain anonymous.