SOUTH PORTLAND – Politics, existentialism and religion mingle in Rajiv Joseph’s powerful “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” now playing at Mad Horse Theatre. The staging marks the award-winning play’s Maine premiere.

The aforementioned tiger springs to life through a captivating performance by Tootie Van Reenan. Though not costumed as a tiger, she deftly embodies the heart of one, pacing back and forth as the tiger, angry at a world that has wronged him.

Van Reenan’s tiger goes from a caged, profanity-spouting beast, to a philosophical ghost, struggling to come to grips with his primal instincts. Throughout the play, her performance is both thought-provoking and unexpectedly witty, given the depth of the subject matter.

“You get hungry, you get stupid and then you get shot and die,” Van Reenan’s tiger muses after meeting his demise at the hands of a young Americansoldier, Kev (Jake Cote).

The tiger is just one of the ghosts who haunt the war-torn landscape of Joseph’s play.

The play is set in Baghdad in 2003, following the covert military execution of Saddam Hussein’s barbarous son Uday and his younger brother, Qusay.

Brent Askari steps into Uday’s sadistic shoes. His performance is unnerving, yet riveting.

Director Nathan Speckman has cast Evan Dalzell in the role of Tom, one of the soldiers who raided the Hussein brothers’ mansion. Mark Rubin is Musa, an interpreter tormented by his past. Allison McCall is Musa’s murdered sister, Hadia. Reba Short rounds out the cast as two Iraqi women.

The cast delivers poignant performances in the multi-layered production. Each character has his or her own story, which dramatically plays out on stage.

“Just because something is gone, doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Kev’s ghost tells Tom. “We’re all just stuck here, mastodons in the life after death.”

We all hope, as we journey through life, that our lives have meaning. Many wonder about, or fear, what lies ahead as we shuffle off this mortal coil.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” gives the audience a lot of food for thought, exploring a variety of topics such life after death, self-perception, life choices, relationships and the damage — both intentional and unintentional — that people inflict on each other. Inner turmoil manifests in physical wounds in the intense drama, loosely based on horrific real-life events. Many of the lines are spoken in Iraqi Arabic, adding emotion and authenticity.

The good, the bad, the conflicted and the savage seek the meaning of life and death on the streets of Baghdad. And Mad Horse movingly drives home their message.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

aprilhboyle@yahoo.com