Reviews

Life oF Pi ****1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 2, 2023: One of the most popular forms of theatre in the 19th century was the spectacular melodrama, a play whose most potent impact depended on special effects that created what were considered convincing earthquakes, avalanches, shipwrecks, floods, train crashes, and even chariot races. The arrival of movies, with their ability to present even more remarkable visual experiences (both real and fabricated), largely obviated the need for such elaborate stage productions, in which dramatic spectacle took precedence over the dramatic substance it was born to serve.

Hiran Abeysekera, Jonathan David Martin, Betsy Rosen, and Nikki Calonge.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 2, 2023: One of the most popular forms of theatre in the 19th century was the spectacular melodrama, a play whose most potent impact depended on special effects that created what were considered convincing earthquakes, avalanches, shipwrecks, floods, train crashes, and even chariot races. The arrival of movies, with their ability to present even more remarkable visual experiences (both real and fabricated), largely obviated the need for such elaborate stage productions, in which dramatic spectacle took precedence over the dramatic substance it was born to serve. 

Such productions never entirely disappeared; we continue every now and then to encounter works that capture our attention at least as much for their scenic awesomeness as for the stories they tell, especially when they demonstrate stirring advances in technology. When a thrilling story finds a comparably thrilling scenic form, including all the marvels of lights, projections, and sound, theatre magic is created; add to this the employment of striking developments in puppetry and you get Life of Pi, the multi-Olivier Award-winning British import (premiere: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2019; London, 2021). The show made its American bow at the A.R.T. in Cambridge this past December and is now making eyes pop and hearts race—including those of many children—at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Finn Caldwell, Jonathan David Martin, Betsy Rosen and Nikki Calonge.

Life of Pi, based on the best-selling 2001 novel by Canadian Yann Martel, and adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, was also made into an Ang Lee movie in 2012, which, like its theatre version, could only have been told with access to breathtaking technical gadgetry. Its subject concerns the experiences of a philosophically inquiring, religiously questing (Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islamism) 16-year-old Indian boy, Piscene Patel (Hiran Abeysekera), from Pondicherry, who—unhappy to be nicknamed “Pissing”—calls himself Pi (after the mathematical term).

Following the sinking of the trans-Pacific Japanese cargo ship on which he and his family are emigrating from India to Canada, to escape political troubles at home (it’s 1976), Pi finds himself adrift in a lifeboat for 227 days, with dwindling amounts of food and water. Following the demise of several zoo animals—a zebra, hyena, and orangutan—that his father (Rajesh Bose), a zoo owner, was transporting to Canada, he spends most of the play sharing his tiny space with a huge Bengal tiger named—because of a clerical error—Richard Parker. Over time, the clever boy gains dominance over the big cat, and the pair manage to create a symbiotic relationship that helps them to survive.

Despite scenes set in a hospital, a zoo, and on the cargo ship, the principal action takes place on the lifeboat. Pi, recuperating from his ordeal in a Mexican hospital (whose bed becomes part of the lifeboat), recounts its details to Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), a demanding Japanese representative of the ship owners, desperate for an account of what happened, and a more sympathetic listener, Lulu Chen (understudy Celia Mei Rubin, covering for Kirsten Louie), a representative of the Canadian government.

So how do you present his tale in a way that recreates its many physical facets, its dangers and its triumphs, with sufficient realism to suggest a boat drifting with a boy and a tiger on a believable sea, with either raging waves or placid ripples, subject to storms, and enlivened by schools of fish, including massive sharks? And how do you show all those animals, be they Richard Parker, a tortoise, or a rat?

Nikki Calonge, Betsy Rosen, and Jonathan David Martin as ‘Richard Parker’ with Hiran Abeysekera as ‘Pi’

Under Max Webster’s crafty direction, set and costume designer Tim Hatley has accomplished the task with a thrust stage jutting into the orchestra; the lifeboat embedded in the turntable floor can spring up or disappear as needed in a split second. Tim Lutkin’s amazing lighting collaborates with Andrzej Goulding’s genius video design and animations to turn the stage into a lifelike sea with splashing whitecaps, its surface sometimes glistening with drops of pouring rain, all of it virtual. Trap doors allow Pi to credibly sink into or rise out of the briny water when he’s forced to go under.

Of course, the show’s most distinctive feature is its life-size animal puppets, the larger ones, like Richard Parker, operated by two or more highly skilled puppeteers, each movement minutely observed and naturalistically expressed. Quite similar methods were used in another outstanding, British-originated show, War Horse, at the Vivian Beaumont in 2011. The puppeteers are also deployed to carry rods to which are attached butterflies, fish, stars, and so on, as in kabuki. My only quibble is that, with so many openly visible puppeteers involved in certain scenes, their presence could have been toned down a bit if they were dressed in black.

Hiran Abeysekera

Life of Pi is a tribute to the power of storytelling, its fantastical narrative of a boy’s survival at sea in a lifeboat shared by a menacing tiger eventually being paired, when Pi’s tale meets with skepticism, with a more conventional—if also difficult to accept—version. In it, we’re given the option of seeing the first telling as a metaphorical explanation of what transpired. We thus face issues of truth versus fiction, reality versus illusion. Pi’s story allows the audience to contemplate not only the veracity of his experience, but issues of faith, friendship, and family, not to mention fantasy.

For a time, given the fast-paced, loudly spoken, heightened acting, it feels at first that Life of Pi is a philosophically inclined children’s adventure story meant to stress its storytelling qualities. But, largely because of the demands placed upon young Mr. Abeysekera as Pi, requiring both a poetically contemplative disposition and athletic grace and vitality, the story itself takes over and it becomes easier to accept his more performative qualities as necessities. By the end, you realize you’ve just seen a considerably demanding, versatile performance likely to earn him one or more award nominations; he did, in fact, win an Olivier for it in London.

Hiran Abeysekera, Jonathan David Martin, Betsy Rosen, and Nikki Calonge.

(A note on the accents: while Mr. Abeysekera uses a marked Indian accent, others playing Indians, including his family members, use accents that range from barely perceptible to practically nonexistent. Brian Thomas Abraham, the hulking actor who plays the ship’s French cook [and the gruff voice of Richard Parker when he starts to speak English!], employs a much too stagey French accent, yet Daisuke Tsuji, an “American-raised Japanese actor,” as his Playbill bio notes, speaks pure American even though his character is presumably a native-born Japanese.)

At two hours, you may (like my wife) find that Life of Pi is a bit longer than its material demands. And, if you’re planning to bring the kids, remember that the play not only contains serious themes, including the vegetarian Pi’s need to decide between eating meat (proscribed by Hinduism) or dying, or gruesome scenes involving the bloody fate of animal victims; they may be puppets but, like so much else in this often exceptional work, the effect seems real. Perhaps you’ve pondered the taste of pie in Sweeney Todd; here’s a chance to consider, like Richard Parker, the taste of Pi.

Life of Pi
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th Street, NYC|
Open run
Photography: Rebecca J Michelson

The Richard Parker team with Finn Caldwell.