'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' at the Mark Taper Forum

Brad Fleisher and Kevin Tighe (caged)
Brad Fleisher and Kevin Tighe (caged) Craig Schwartz

When the United States invaded Iraq seven years ago, the Baghdad Zoo became part of the collateral damage. Playwright Rajiv Joseph read at the time that many animals escaped or died. He developed “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” first as a 10-minute piece, then as a full-length play.

It premiered last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, and was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in drama. The production reopens Sunday at the larger Mark Taper Forum, with the original cast and creative team.

Kevin Tighe plays the Tiger in the title – and its ghost. You might remember him as Paramedic Roy De Soto from the 1970s NBC series “Emergency,” a show that brought him celebrity. He tells KPCC's Steve Julian he didn't like that attention.

"I just had a hard time figuring out how to be more than who I was," said Tighe, laughing. "I guess. There’s something about all that where they, you know, all of these people recognize you, and it was a little frightening, really.”

Tighe said he was uncomfortable around kids his own age and got kicked out of a few schools.

“I was able to get into theater, drama departments, and establish some sort of rapport, and there I could afford to be aloof and still command a certain amount of respect.”

Over time, Kevin Tighe developed into a character actor. That helps when you play a tiger that serves, really, as a tour guide for the audience. Playwright Rajiv Joseph said that between the original run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and now, he gained new insights about the tiger.

“He’s moving through this play with a journey and, in the previous incarnation of the play, he disappears, literally, in stage time, but also in terms of that journey," said Joseph. "He disappeared in the second act, and then reappeared near the end of it. And I wanted to take the opportunity to start the act with him because that seemed to me right. The way we have this now with Kevin’s monologue to begin the act, and the staging that Moises gave that monologue, I feel is a very powerful moment in the play, and one that I’m very happy with.”

Act two opens this way:

“Well, there are all the lost ghosts of the city are present in various manifestations, and the tiger enters into this," said Tighe. "And part of his monologue addresses his meeting with a little girl and this moment that they have in this garden, and the possibility, the expectation perhaps, that there is a god who might be listening, hopefully.”

"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" is, in part, a search for answers, for proof. It’s set in the garden of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace – full of large topiary animals, now ravaged and neglected. Toward the play’s end, the tiger mistakes the Arab gardener for God. Rajiv Joseph read the gardener’s line:

“God has spoken. This world – this is what he said. And the tiger feeds off of that line, and that takes us to the close of the play.”

Joseph said he’s tweaked the ending twice a day, every day, for two weeks. The year-long break between productions led him to move away from a speech about God.

“We were searching for something more active, and more in line with the tiger, as a character’s desires and needs and wants and nature, keeping true to the fact that this is a tiger – and what does a tiger fall back on? His most basic, primal needs.”

“And when he dies, even as the ghost, he’s not thinking about getting laid, you know?" said Tighe, laughing. "He’s well beyond that, you know? It’s survival. It’s acceptance.”

“And that seemed to be a truer, more authentic way to end this play, rather than a speech about God," said Joseph.

"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday.

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