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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Robin Williams made either a risky, or courageous, choice for his Broadway acting debut by depicting the ghost of a Bengal tiger slinking around the bloody streets of Baghdad trying to make sense of humans and war.
"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" opens on Thursday and is risky because for years, most tales with the Iraq war as a backdrop have proven unpopular with U.S. audiences. But the actor and comedian believes the role is an obvious choice for him and the play is a worthy drama to challenge theater-goers.
"People say, 'why?' Because it's an extraordinary piece," he told Reuters. "I read it and went, 'This is worth doing.'"
As the curtain rises, Williams' tiger character stands upright in a cage, joking about the absurdities of life before being taunted by a U.S. soldier. The tiger bites off the man's hand and is then shot to death.
"To die in captivity in a Baghdad zoo, what a freakin' life," he muses to a laughing audience.
But the play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year, then turns toward the brutality of war, and the tiger's ghost takes to the streets of the war-torn city with surprising, acerbic reflections on the nature of animals, humanity and religion.
"Bengal Tiger" takes place in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and key characters including U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter are haunted by acts they have committed and the gruesome realities of armed conflict.
In trying to explain "Bengal Tiger," the 59-year-old Williams recalled his off-Broadway -- or as he joked, "under Broadway" -- stage work in the Samuel Beckett play, "Waiting For Godot" in 1988.
"It talks about the war, the consequences of war, ghosts dealing with other consequences, there is so much, it is so layered," he said. "It basically makes 'Godot' look Amish, because there is such brutality in there...and a weird spiritual journey too."
American playwright Rajiv Joseph said the play's plot was inspired by a newspaper article about a real tiger in Baghdad that was killed after biting off a U.S. soldier's hand.
He began writing the play "in earnest" in 2005, and it was first produced two years ago in Los Angeles.
But why the ghost of a tiger as the protagonist?
"To look at Baghdad through the tiger's eyes, to see what he sees, makes him an apolitical narrator, which is interesting," Joseph told Reuters.
While the bengal tiger lives in a world that seems surreal, the play is populated by several real-life figures, including Saddam Hussein's widely-feared eldest son, Uday Hussein, who is seen on stage holding his brother Qusay's severed head.
Joseph, 36, who has written about seven plays, wasn't worried that audiences would be deterred by the topic of Iraq and the lack of big box office and mainstream popularity for movies such "The Hurt Locker" and "Green Zone."
"Humor is a huge part of this play, as dark as it is," he said, emphasizing "it is not realistic, it has a talking animal as its main character."
Williams, who performed his stand-up routine on Broadway in 2002, brings his usual comic touches, Joseph said, mixed with "this grief, actually, and this deep compassion that he also possesses as an actor."
additional reporting by Elly Park, editing by Bob Tourtellotte