Robin Williams Brings Baghdad's 'Tiger' To Broadway Williams makes his Broadway debut this week in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo as the ghost of a captive tiger. Joseph's play explores the war-torn streets of Baghdad and the spiritual journeys of its denizens, through a blend of ghost story, war play, satire and theater of the absurd.
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Robin Williams Brings Baghdad's 'Tiger' To Broadway

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Robin Williams Brings Baghdad's 'Tiger' To Broadway

Robin Williams Brings Baghdad's 'Tiger' To Broadway

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN: "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" takes place in 2003, shortly after shock and awe. Director Moises Kaufman says the playwright may have come up with a theatrical equivalent.

MOISES KAUFMAN, Host:

There is a tiger that talks. There is a ghost of the son of Saddam Hussein. There is the ghost of a young girl. There is two American soldiers, one of whom dies in the middle of the play and becomes a ghost. So it's part ghost story, part war play, part satire, part theater of the absurd.

LUNDEN: And all part of Rajiv Joseph's prodigious imagination. The play, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year, started as a 10-minute sketch Joseph wrote in grad school, after he read a newspaper article.

RAJIV JOSEPH: It was just after the fall of Baghdad. Some of the U.S. bombs had blown open part of the zoo, and so animals had escaped. People were looting the zoo, and so there were these soldiers that were stationed there.

LUNDEN: Joseph liked the short play so much, he expanded it. But the beginning has stayed the same for the past eight years. The tiger - played by Robin Williams and dressed in grungy clothing - speaks directly to the audience about his plight, while two American soldiers stand guard and look over a golden pistol plundered from Uday Hussein's palace.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (as Tiger) I'm not going to lie. When I get hungry, I get stupid. Twelve years back, I screwed up, okay? I followed the scent. I took a bite and then, fhwipp...

BRAD FLEISCHER: (as Kev) A gold (bleep) gun.

WILLIAMS: (as Tiger) ...a tranquilizer dart comes from out of nowhere, and I wake up in Baghdad.

FLEISCHER: (as Kev) Sweet ass.

WILLIAMS: (as Tiger) So that was depressing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: Robin Williams.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I'm kind of like karmic relief. The first ghost and then there's others who join me. And then, like I say at some point, it's lousy with ghosts.

LUNDEN: The tiger embarks on a spiritual journey, restlessly wandering the streets of Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO")

WILLIAMS: And now that I'm dead, I'm a ghost, it's why aren't I gone?

LUNDEN: It's not just the tiger who feels trapped. Whether in life or the afterlife, all the characters, American and Iraqi, find themselves caged in by circumstance, says playwright Rajiv Joseph.

JOSEPH: Being able to experience, through this play, like a character, such as the tiger or the soldiers or this translator, of people far from where they want to be out of their natural habitat, forced into situations that they need to fight to get out of. And the war - any war - seems to put people and animals in those types of situations.

LUNDEN: The chief Iraqi character, Musa, a translator for the American military, was Uday Hussein's gardener, creating beautiful topiary before the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO")

ARIAN MOAYED: Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) So you're a gardener! So what?

MOAYED: Unidentified Man: (as character) What?

MOAYED: (as Musa) You don't understand.

BLOCK: (as character) What don't I understand?

MOAYED: (as Musa) I am an artist. I am an artist.

LUNDEN: But Musa, like all the characters in the play, is pushed to the brink. Director Moises Kaufman says the play poses some pretty basic questions.

KAUFMAN: At our core, what are we? Are we primal beings that will continue killing one another? Or are we really beings in search of a spiritual goal? And I think that dichotomy between those two selves is what plays itself out in this play.

LUNDEN: And Robin Williams says this ghost play, set in a specific time in a specific place, gives Broadway audiences a lot to chew on.

WILLIAMS: One of the most powerful lines in the play is: You Americans, you think when something dies, it goes away. You know, the idea of that palpable feeling of they're still there is very interesting.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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