Robin Williams in “A Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo”

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from John Dixon at the Village Voice asking if I was available to do any work for an upcoming issue. John had a great idea. He wanted to do an all comic issue of the Voice and felt my work would fit for a review of a new play opening on Broadway called “A Bengal Tiger at the Bagdhad Zoo“. The play is by Rajiv Joseph and stars Robin Williams in his Broadway debut. Williams plays a tiger in the Bagdhad Zoo during the Iraq war who is killed for biting the hand that feeds it. He then spends a portion of the play as a ghost questioning the war itself and the justifications surrounding it. It’s a thoughtful play about human nature and reminds me very much of the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn.

At least it’s description does. This happened to be one of those assignments where I did not receive any source material. As a result I researched what I could and spent the rest of the time speculating and concentrating on what I the material evoked.

There were a few things I was certain should make it into the finished piece. Mainly Robin himself. However, if I could somehow include a tiger that would be good too. John sent me some publicity stills and when I got to see how raggedy and tired Williams looked in character the concept formed: I would paint Robin Williams as the character, only I would give him a bengal beard to make the connection and drive the characterization home. I thought the sensitive confrontation of close up of Williams was the best way to go. If I could somehow evoke the nature of the Iraq War, well that would only strengthen the image. Indirectly I wanted Williams to look kind of like those pictures of a defeated Saddam Hussein. Those shots after Saddam’s capture where he looks tired, disheveled and hasn’t seen a razor in months. The challenge would be to make sure the person in the finished piece looked like Robin Williams even though much of his face was obscured by a beard.

Things developed as the imaged progressed. I added some helicopters, smoke, minarets and a feeding slot to the cage. John gave me tremendous amounts of leeway in creating this image and as a result I made an early decision to give the painting a unique shape. The pointed arch is a staple of Arabic architecture and framing the final piece that way made it that much more descriptive. All in all a fun assignment.


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