Whether or not his fantastical tale of sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days on the open seas will “make you believe in God,” as the 17-year-old shipwreck survivor named Pi Patel promises, the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel “Life of Pi” will give you faith in the power of puppetry and in the magic of stagecraft.
“Life of Pi,” opening tonight at the Gerald Schoenfeld theater on Broadway, is as much a landmark in the puppetry arts as “The Lion King” or “War Horse,” with a zoo full of animals wondrously designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, who also meticulously works out their movement. At one point just after the shipwreck, in an impressive feat of coordination, Pi shares the small boat on stage not just with the tiger but with a hyena, an orangutan, a rat, and a zebra, all brought to life – while killing each other — by eleven puppeteers crammed together.
The puppets are only part of the breathtaking effects in “Life of Pi.” We’re plunged into a world that’s at times hellish, at times heavenly, by a masterful team of designers – Tim Lutkin’s lighting, Carolyn Downing’s sound, Andrzej Goulding’s video and animation, Tim Hatley’s sets and costumes — Andrew T Mackay’s music, and, crucially, by the two dozen cast members, who are fully integrated into not just the action but also the scenery.
Hiran Abeysekera, a Sri Lankan-born, British-trained actor, is extraordinary as the central character of Pi; agile and expressive, he persuasively channels Pi’s distinctive mix of innocence, intelligence, unusual spirituality and mischievous wit. But he is also lifted up – sometimes literally – by the other performers. Together they hold aloft and animate the kaleidoscope of butterflies and the iridescent schools of fish; they people the Indian town of Pondicherry, where Pi grows up the son of the local zookeeper; they carry a steam-chugging model of the Japanese cargo ship the Tsimtsum, which Pi, his family and their animals board en route to a hoped-for new life in Canada.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation frames Pi’s story differently than Martel’s popular book or the Oscar-winning 2012 film directed by Ang Lee, getting rid of the characters of the novelist and of the older Pi, and instead beginning in a sterile white hospital room in Mexico in 1978. There, a nurse ushers in Lulu Chen from the Canadian Embassy and Mr Okamoto from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. At first, Pi is nowhere to be found, but the nurse offers him a candy, and Pi’s hand appears from under the bed to take one. Mr. Okamoto gets right down to official business; he is there to learn the story of the shipwreck eight months earlier from its only survivor.
“How should I begin? Once upon a time?” Pi asks.
“We’re not children Mr Patel.”
“We’re all children Mr Okamoto.”
The hospital falls away, and suddenly we are introduced to the crowded, colorful Pondicherry Zoo two years earlier, our first sighting those puppet butterflies…and then a giraffe! This is followed by a goat named Buckingham and a zebra named Black n White, and eventually, the tiger known as Richard Parker (a result of a mix-up in the bill of sale; the hunter who sold him to the zoo was named Richard Parker.)
The story moves forward efficiently from there, occasionally returning to that hospital room where Pi comments on his story and Mr. Okamoto expresses skepticism, before returning right back. We meet Pi’s family and their friends, much as in the book (except his brother Ravi, the captain of the cricket team, has been turned into his sister Rani, a math prodigy); learn of Pi’s simultaneous embrace of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, which is largely presented comically; hear the decision by Pi’s father to emigrate because of the tense political situation in India; see them aboard the cargo ship. It’s nearly halfway through the play, shortly before intermission, that the shipwreck occurs.
So, just about half of “Life of Pi” is Pi in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean fighting the elements, and trying not to be eaten by Richard Parker. As Pi’s lifeboat drifts, our attention never does. There are the visits by ghosts of his family members and hallucinations, such as Admiral Jackson, the author of the survival manual he found in the lifeboat. There are small touches of craft that keep us engaged. One time, Pi discovers biscuits in the lifeboat, wrapped in brown paper. The wrappers suddenly float away from him, and form into a sheet with a caption: “30 days later” – this was the creative team’s way of showing us the passage of time. Another time, the stage becomes a roiling ocean, but not with water, with what looks like wooden slats. Still, Pi convincingly dives into one end, and emerges yards away, as if having swum underwater.
No, there isn’t a similar deep dive into the nature and force of religious belief as there is in the book (or even in the movie), and the ending is not as poignant But “Life of Pi” the stage play is part of puppetry’s moment. From performance to performance, much of the cast takes turns becoming the cat, three at a time. One controls Richard Parker’s head, its eyes, its breath and thus its thoughts; a second inside the tiger, controls its heart, shares its breath, and exhibits its muscularity; a third in the hind quarters, controls Richard Parker’s feet and the swish of its tail, determining how it moves and what it feels. Observing these three work together like that to create a thinking, feeling, moving creature is, if not an indisputable blessing, surely a little bit of bliss.
Life of Pi
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
Update: Closing July 23, 2023
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $49 – $199
Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Directed by Max Webster
Set and Costume design Tim Hatley, Puppet and Movement Direction by Finn Caldwell, Puppet Design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, Video Design by Andrzej Goulding, Lighting Design by Tim Lutkin, Sound Design by Carolyn Downing, Original Music by Andrew T Mackay, and Dramaturgy by Jack Bradley
Cast: Hiran Abeysekera as Pi, Adi Dixit as alternate Pi, Brian Thomas Abraham as Cook and Voice of Richard Parker, Rajesh Bose as father, Nikki Calonge as Richard Parker, Machnaz Damania in ensemble, Fred Davis as Richard Parker, Avery Glymph as Father Martin, Russian sailor and Admiral Jackson, Jon Hoche in ensemble, Mahir Kakkar as nurse, Amma, and Orange Juice, Kirstin Louie as Lulu Chen, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee as Richard Parker, Jonathan David Martin as Richard Parker, Usman Ali Mughal in ensemble, Uma Paranjpe in ensemble, Salma Qarnain as Mrs. Biology Kumar and Saida Khan, Betsy Rosen as Richard Parker, Celia Mei Rubin as Richard Parker, David Shih in ensemble , Sathya Sridharan as Mamaji and Pandi-Ji, Daisuke Tsuji as Mr. Okamoto and Captain, Sonya Venugopal as Rani, Scarlet Wilderink as Richard Parker, Andrew Wilson as Richard Parker