Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was first performed in California’s Culver City in 2009, under the direction of multi award-winner Moisés Kaufman. In 2011, Kaufman led the Broadway premiere production of the play, which starred the late Robin Williams in the lead role of the Tiger. The production, in fact, represented Williams’ only appearance in a Broadway play.
Australian actor and theatre producer Stephen Multari was fortunate to see Williams perform in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo during its Broadway run.
“It was one of the shows that I had to see,” he tells Theatre People.
“You don’t pass up an opportunity to see Robin Williams on stage, especially in such a dramatic piece. You weren’t getting Robin the stand-up comedian, you were getting Robin as this tiger wandering around in war-torn Baghdad, which was just incredible.”
Multari also had the chance to meet Williams at stage door following the show.
“Out he popped, completely exhausted, after the show … but still managed, in this state of exhaustion, to crack some jokes and make us laugh, and very happily took some photos with us,” he recalls.
“It was a lovely, once-in-a-lifetime exchange.”
After seeing the show, Multari hoped to one day have the opportunity himself to perform in Joseph’s play. He’s now getting that opportunity, as part of the cast of the Sydney premiere production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, playing a limited season at the Old Fitz Theatre.
“The opportunity popped up to audition for it and, obviously, I jumped at the chance,” Multari says. “I got the role that I wanted to play as well, which was even better.”
Multari is a regular on Sydney stages with a host of stage and television credits to his name, and he’s also the Artistic Director of MopHead Productions.
Multari is excited to be taking the stage in the play’s first Sydney outing, directed by Claudia Barrie and starring industry veteran Maggie Dence (The Mavis Bramston Show, The Turquoise Elephant, The Sullivans) in the role of the Tiger.
“It’s a very physical play and extremely challenging for an actor,” he says. “If you’re able to be a part of this, it’s a pretty special thing.”
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is set in Baghdad in late 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq.
“There was this incredible zoo with these remarkable animals housed inside, and one of them was a tiger,” Multari says.
“The play is loosely based on a true story of an American marine, who lost his [finger] to the tiger. My character is loosely based on that marine. The playwright uses the animals and the zoo as an allegory for the American occupation within Iraq at the time. Initially, they were a very welcome presence, but that turned pretty quickly.”
He continues: “There’s no real right or wrong, it’s just an incredible piece of writing and really quite emotive but, unexpectedly, really funny, which is a great thing. I think the playwright has used humour in a clever way, in order to really reach out and grab the audience.
“It’s an ensemble piece and there are quite a few character arcs going on, and the way that he’s interwoven them … is really clever. The characters are not representative of a larger idea; they are themselves unique and really fleshed out, real people, which is wonderful.”
Multari admits he has a substantial acting challenge on his hands in bringing to life the character of Tom.
“The intensity of my character is relentless. It just increases as the play goes on,” he says.
He hopes people will walk away from Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo both moved and shocked by their experience.
“There are a lot of plays that are wonderful, that are a fun night in the theatre. This play has the ability to stay with you for a long time,” Multari says.
“I think if we can make people think about this play for a little while and be changed in some way, then we’ve done our job.”
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, 129 Dowling Street (Cnr Cathedral Street), Woolloomooloo
Season: Playing now until 6 May
Times: Tues – Sat 8:15pm, Sunday 6:30pm
Running Time: 2 hours (including interval)
Price: $42 Adult, $35 Concession, $30 Previews and Cheap Tuesday