Tonight is the opening night for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo! Two weeks ago, I got to sit down with Richard McGarvey and Michael Manfred to talk about theatre, the show, and their processes. Of course, I could not go to the interview without bringing a descendant of an actual tiger along with me! Inspired by Buzzfeed, we did an “interview with kittens” with my kitten, Ann Purrkins.
I had the privilege to work closely with both Rich and Michael in Altoona Community Theatre’s The 39 Steps last year and since then we have become fast friends! We even took The 39 Steps to the Pennsylvania Association of Community Theatre Festival in March of 2017 and won several awards! I am anxious to see them and many other friends in this upcoming production.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was written by Rajiv Joseph. It originally premiered on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater which is the same theatre where Hamilton premiered. The role of the Tiger was originally played by Robin Williams.
Michael Manfred is playing Musa in Things Unseen Theatre Company’s production of Bengal Tiger. Michael is an award-winning actor and writer. Michael has been inhabiting characters since elementary school, both his own and those of others. Most recently, you may have seen him in The 39 Steps or Big River at Altoona Community Theatre. He is also playing Chef Louis in ACT’s upcoming production of The Little Mermaid. Richard McGarvey is the Director for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Rich has performed in A Doll’s House, The Weir and True West for Things Unseen in the past. He has directed for McGarvey’s dinner theatre and most recently for ACT’s award winning The 39 Steps. He also owns and operates McGarvey’s bar along with his wife Kelly.
Rich: “From the moment I read it, I really loved the idea of a play that questions the nature of value in such a horrible place, but it was also such a dark comedy. It has some really funny brilliantly written moments. Also, Joseph’s descriptive power, the way he describes things and two individual moments, is so powerful and I really wanted to bring it to the stage here. I also knew that it was something that probably no one else in town would really do because it is a really rough play. Other than just the graphic nature of it, just the questions that it tackles and the position it puts people in, it is a really hard to do, but we are having a good time with it!”
Michael: “There are two major reasons. The first is that a lot of opportunities in community theatre tend to be more light-hearted and while I have no problem with that (I have done a lot of comedies, musicals, and things like that), there are certain acting muscles that atrophy when you are not thinking about character motivations and why you have to do something. The second part is that I wanted to work with Rich again, because I enjoyed working with him so much when we did The 39 Steps; he will not agree I am sure! But, he was so good as a director. He really allowed you to branch out and try things and not every director is like that. Some of them have an idea and that is legitimate as any other way to direct, but when you encounter a director that allows you freedom and they’re interested in seeing what will happen. And that was a comedy! So now we were going to have freedom to work emotion and I was really looking forward to that.”
How do you approach a drama versus a comedy?
Michael: “With comedy, you have to be aware of the audience at all times. There is just no way around that because if you get so far into yourself you don’t know what the audience is doing that you risk losing them. Just because you think something is going to work in your head doesn’t mean it is actually enriching the show or the experience for the audience. So comedy is more about the audience than it is the performer, in my opinion. Drama is not necessarily less about the audience because the audience is there, but they are the passive force rather than the active. You can’t hear them. You know they are there and sometimes you can feel their energy in the room. But also, it is more so about interactions between yourself and your fellow actors which is nice. The cliché is you go on a journey, but it is a bit of a journey. You start as one person who hasn’t read the play, who doesn’t know about the play, and you end up as another person who as an intimate knowledge of one specific cast member. I may not know what my other cast members Zack Scholl, Caleb Wolfe, Jerry Cox, Rick Gray, or Amanda Mascitelli are going through, but I know that I am going through it, whatever it is, with them and that is a different feeling altogether.
Rich: “Well, when I do a comedy, I just kind of throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Anything I remotely think might be funny I’ll throw it at it and just pull out what isn’t working. With a drama, I can’t really do that as much because I have to make sure everything flows together. What I like to do with a drama is I see it in my head when I am reading it almost like a movie. Then, the actors come on and lend their voice and their creative talent to it. For me, everything in life is as funny as I make it. I like making people laugh! Whereas something like this I have to pull it all back in and find the nuggets and the moment we can fit that in and also sticking true to the script Joseph has written.”
What important themes do you think will intrigue Blair County audience members?
Rich: “It’s a really interesting play! The thing that comes out mostly is the questioning of God in a horrible place, in this case a combat zone. It’s not just questioning our version of God, the Christian, American version of God. It questions the Muslim version of God. It questions the very existence of a God-like being. Because we make several references to “are you there” in the show. It doesn’t matter which God you are praying to, but “are you there?” and “how could you let this happen!” That’s what comes out first. But I think the other thing that is interesting it shows how individuals in incredibly difficult and tumultuous situations can completely and utterly alter their personalities to fit whatever they need to survive which happens a lot here. We have several characters who start off very happy go lucky or very innocent and by the end of the show they’re murderers or are just completely violent to people because they need to survive and they have to do what they have to do to survive.”
Michael: “The play takes place long enough ago that we can have some perspective on this. We’re still dealing with the fallout of what we did in that area in the world. It’s not over and I don’t think it’s going to be over for a while depending on the political leanings of people in power. But, the idea of an occupied country is something America has never had to live through. Certain sects of America have, but the country as whole has never been in the situation where someone else was in charge of where we live. So it becomes really necessary to understand what that’s like. If we are going to understand it and not, pray God, have to live through it then we’re going to be in a situation where we have to have literature that tells us what that is like. Rajiv is a person who seems to know what he is talking about. He seems to be a very astute writer. With the concepts of the ghosts and motifs of all the different hands being taken off, he seems like a very accomplished storyteller. What we are doing is assisting his story and to a certain extent we are assisting Rich tell Rajiv’s story. That’s a big part of it. Another part of it is no matter how you feel about politics, people are different. And you end up in a situation where you are either pro-military or anti-military you can come see the show and get different things out of it. I don’t think people with different political leanings are going to get the same things out of it. But, PTSD is a part of the show and the idea that there are ideologies and there are ways of life that we don’t come in contact with on a daily basis. I am not just saying in Central Pennsylvania. Most of America probably doesn’t on a daily basis come in contact with some of these things. Art exists because ignorance exists. If ignorance stops existing I guess we won’t need art anymore, which is not necessarily the point of art, but it is definitely a positive byproduct.”
Rich: “Well first and foremost was the setting of it. This takes place all over Baghdad in 2003 during the war and we have a very small stage to work on! Setting it up was tough. Getting young actors to get to a place where they can explore some of these very dark and disturbing subject matters that we do discuss in the play has been pretty challenging. They are getting there. They are doing a really good job! Since it is a dark comedy, making some God awful horrible people in the performance mildly funny and appealing, and in some cases hysterical and appealing has been a challenge, but it is coming together nicely. For instance, Uday Hussein who was quite a very evil person (he did very graphic and horrible things to people just to make him and his friends laugh) comes across as almost very likable in this play. As he describes some of these incidents, he is very playful, but at the same time if you listen to what he is saying it’s very disturbing that one human being can do this. So bringing that to the stage and making it appealing to an audience so they don’t just turn off immediately because it is so disturbing and dark has been a challenge. A side note from that, Rick Gray is doing a phenomenal job as Uday!”
Michael: “At least a third if not half of my lines are in a different language. There is a real challenge there by not being able to traditionally perform those words because I don’t know what they mean. I have the translation, but the translation does not tell me what word means what thing. So I can’t punch words like I can in English. It becomes a much more organic process than I am used to. For me, that is definitely the biggest aspect. The other thing is doing an accent, which I have done aspects of before. I do accents almost every time. I don’t think I have done a show where I use my actual voice! But this is a really complex accent. It is not one you hear a lot in television or in the movies and when you do it tends to be from a negative standpoint. So you have to take this person who basically seems like the “bad guy,” if you want to think about it like that, and find the positive in it. Not that Musa is a bad guy, but I think with American audiences, which is what we are dealing with, as soon as you hear someone come out who has that Middle Eastern cadance to the way they talk, you are just waiting for them to betray you. And I don’t want to say that’s how we should approach it, but I don’t think we are in a position to say anything else until you explore the aspects of the character. Musa goes on a real self discovery trip. He finds out things about himself I am not crazy about and he has options to change and he may or may not change those things. It’s possible he needs to be a harsher person than he is used to being. You’ll have to come to the show to find out!”
I am very excited to see the show and to support my friends. Ann Purrkins enjoyed seeing the cast and crew at rehearsal and will be anxious to know how it goes. She is especially anxious to hear about Jerry Cox who will be playing the Tiger. Break a leg cast and crew!
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo starts tonight at 8 pm and runs April 13th and 14th at 8pm and at 2pm on April 15 at The Church in the Middle of the Block Cultural Center.
Admission is $10 for students, seniors, and military and $12 for general admission. You can get tickets at the door, at Altoona Thompson Pharmacies, or at McGarvey’s Bar and Grill.
If you want to read more, check out the Altoona Mirror’s article!