4:27pm

Thu March 31, 2011
Theater

Robin Williams Brings Baghdad's 'Tiger' To Broadway

Rajiv Joseph, 36, may just be one of the busiest playwrights in the country. This season, his play Gruesome Playground Injuries was produced off-Broadway; a new work, The North Pool, is currently running in Palo Alto, Calif.; and another play, The Medusa Body, makes its debut in Houston this May. He's a staff writer for the cable series Nurse Jackie. And, if that weren't enough, Joseph is making his Broadway debut with Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams.

The play, which is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, takes place in Baghdad, shortly after "Shock and Awe." Director Moises Kaufman says the playwright may have come up with a theatrical equivalent, as he attempts to describe Bengal Tiger: "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 are two American soldiers, one of whom dies in the middle of the play and becomes a ghost." He concludes, "It's part ghost story, part war play, part satire, part theater of the absurd."

And all part of Rajiv Joseph's prodigious imagination. The play, which was produced by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles last season, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It started as a 10-minute sketch Joseph wrote in grad school, after he read a newspaper article. "It was just after the fall of Baghdad, when we were occupying Baghdad and some of the U.S. bombs had blown open part of the zoo," he says. "Animals had escaped, people were looting the zoo and there were these soldiers that were stationed there."

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 simple, but 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. And — spoiler alert — within 10 minutes the hungry tiger takes a bite out of one of the soldiers, gets shot by that golden gun and dies.

"Yeah, I'm kind of like karmic relief," jokes Williams backstage after a matinee. "The first ghost and then, there's others who join me. And then, like I say at some point, 'it's lousy with ghosts.' "

The Tiger embarks on a spiritual journey, restlessly wandering the streets of Baghdad and haunting the young soldier who has killed him. He finds a ruined topiary garden, which he thinks might be heaven, and ponders:

All my life I've been plagued, as most tigers are, by this existential quandary: Why am I here? And now that I'm dead, I'm a ghost, it's why aren't I gone?

It's not just the Tiger who feels trapped. Whether in life or the afterlife, all Bengal Tiger's characters, American and Iraqi, find themselves caged in by circumstance. "Being able to experience, through this play a character such as the Tiger, or the soldiers, or this translator," says Joseph, "of people far from where they wanna 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."

Kaufman says the play poses some pretty basic questions. "At our core, what are we?" he asks. "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."

And Williams thinks this ghost play, set in a specific time in a specific place, gives Broadway audiences a lot to chew on: "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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Thirty-six-year-old Rajiv Joseph has to be one of the busiest playwrights in the country. This season, he has had his work produced off-Broadway, in Palo Alto, California; and he has a new play opening in May in Houston. He's also a staff writer for the cable series "Nurse Jackie." And tonight, he makes his Broadway debut with a play starring Robin Williams as a tiger.

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.

Mr. MOISES KAUFMAN (Director, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"): 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.

Mr. RAJIV JOSEPH (Playwright): 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")

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (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...

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

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

Mr. FLEISCHER: (as Kev) Sweet ass.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (as Tiger) So that was depressing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: And - spoiler alert - within 10 minutes, the hungry tiger takes a bite out of one of the soldiers, gets shot by that golden gun and dies.

Robin Williams.

Mr. 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")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (as Tiger) All my life, I've been plagued, as most tigers are, by this existential quandary: Why am I here?

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.

Mr. 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")

Mr. ARIAN MOAYED (Actor): (as Musa) I am a gardener. Do you understand? I am not a terrorist. I'm not an arms dealer or translator or terp, okay? I am a gardener.

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

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

Unidentified Man: (as character) What?

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

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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: "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" opens at the Richard Rodgers Theatre tonight.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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