Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Life of Pi, which has also been turned into the Oscar winning 2012 film by Ang Lee, has arrived on Broadway courtesy of Sheffield Theaters, Great Britain, and the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, the London production has just won the Olivier Award for Best Play, Best Actor for Hiran Abeysekera as Pi Patel and Best Supporting Actor for Fred Davis and Scarlet Wilderink as part of the seven-person team of puppeteers which control Richard Parker, the Royal Bengal Tiger with whom Pi shares a lifeboat for 227 days crossing the Pacific Ocean. Max Webster’s production is always spectacular both before Pi leaves Pondicherry, India, where his father runs the local zoo, and while he is on the ocean surrounded entirely by water for seven months.
Like the novel, the play plots the fascinating story of Pi Patel’s childhood at the zoo in Pondicherry with his excitable father, worrywart of a mother, and sarcastic older sister, a math genius. Seeing in 1977 that India may be on the verge of unrest, his father decides that they should leave for Canada and take many of the animals with them. When their freighter out of Manilla sinks without a trace, Pi is the sole human survivor left on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a rat, a goat, a hyena, an orangutan and a ferocious Royal Bengal Tiger. In short order, only Pi and the Tiger named Richard Parker are left alive and have to coexist for 227 days initially without food or water before landing safely in Mexico. How Pi solves these problems and tames Richard Parker while seeing the beauties and horrors of the natural world is the story of the play. While the novel also contains the hallucinatory scene in which Pi imagines that the tiger speaks to him when they are both without water for many days which appears in the novel, the play cleverly adds Pi’s hallucinations where members of his family appear and give him advice while he is at sea.
However, some of the choices by both playwright Chakrabarti and puppet designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell are problematic. Both the book and the play are cast as the story that Pi tells to the Mr. Okamoto, a representative from the Japanese Ministry of Transport and Lulu Chen, from the Canadian Embassy in Mexico. In the book, Pi is allowed to tell his tale from beginning to end without interruption with the tension rising as the stakes become higher. In the play, however, he is interrupted seven times as we return to his hospital room again and again so that Mr. Okamoto can object to what he is hearing. Just as soon as we become absorbed in Pi’s tale we are taken out of our journey on the Pacific and brought back to the hospital setting. It is both distracting and dissipates the tension of the storytelling, and feels repetitious, happening again and again.
While the animal puppets are remarkably fluid, we are always conscious of the puppeteers manipulating them which is usually not the case in professional shows. This takes away from the believability of these puppets as lifelike animals, Nevertheless, much of the time one forgets and sees Barnes and Caldwell’s animals as real particularly Richard Parker which uses nine actors alternately to make his sinister, sinuous body come to life.
Visually, the production is stunning. The early scenes of the zoo and the market place are colorful and vivid. The scenes of the ship are evocative of freighters. The lifeboat takes some getting used to as it rises from the stage and returns for the hospital scenes. Pi’s hospital bed is always on the boat either to remind us that he is retelling his story from his hospital room or that it is just a story and not entirely real.
The lighting and video projections work hand in hand. It is difficult to know whether the play of lights on the stage floor which create the ever-changing ocean is the work of Tim Lutkin’s lighting or Andrzej Goulding’s video design. So too the sky which never remains the same may be the work of one or the other or both. Among the magical scenes are the butterflies depicting the botanical gardens in which the zoo is located, the flying fish in the night and the scene where Pi and Richard Parker examine the star-filled sky.
The authentic cast with roots in the Middle East is always believable as Indian characters. As Pi, Abeysekera who also played the role in London is riveting as well as amusing as the 17-year-old boy has lived beyond his years in his extraordinary adventure and braving fears the rest of us have never experienced. As his father, Rajesh Bose brings a sense of authority to his role as the zoo keeper whose entire life revolves around animals. Mahira Kakkar is excellent as the peremptory nurse in Mexico, Pi’s mother and Orange Juice, the female orangutan. Changed from a young brother to an older sister, Sonya Venugopal’s Rani is wry as a disparaging and satirical sibling.
As Pi’s Auntie referred to as Mrs. Biology Kumar, Salma Qarnain brings her to vivid life as does Sathya Sridharan as Pi’s eccentric Uncle Mamaji. Many of the actors play multiple roles as do they: Daisuke Tsuji is efficiently brusque as the Japanese official and authoritative as the Captain of the freighter. Playing the Catholic priest Father Martin of Pondicherry, a Russian Sailor on the freighter and Admiral Jackson, the author of the survival guide that Pi finds in the ration box on the lifeboat which proves to be a lifesaver, Avery Glymph is totally different as these three characters. As the nasty and amoral Cook on the freighter, Brian Thomas Abraham is a formidable adversary for the Patel family. Subbing for Kirstin Louie as Lulu Chen from the Canadian embassy, Celia Mei Rubin in the performance under review is caring and compassionate to Pi’s traumas and fears in his hospital room.
Life of Pi is a unique theatrical experience with its animal puppetry, depiction of 227 days on the ocean, and bringing to life an Indian city, circa 1977. It tells a fantastical story with brio and flair making use of all of the theatrical arts. With a cast led by Olivier Award winner Hiran Abeysekera, you could not imagine anyone else in these roles. However, the playwriting and the production do have their flaws which are eventually overcome by its theatricality and storytelling. Kudos to director Max Webster for orchestrating the production so well.
Life of Pi (though July 23, 2023)
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.Lifeofpibway.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission