Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Life of Pi

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 30, 2023

Life of Pi. Based on the novel by Yann Martel. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Max Webster. Scenic and costume design by Tim Hatley. Puppetry and movement direction by Finn Caldwell. Puppet design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell. Video design and animation by Andrzej Goulding. Lighting design by Tim Lutkin. Sound design by Carolyn Downing. Wig design by David Brian Brown. Original music by Andrew T. Mackay. Dramaturgy by Jack Bradley. Resident director Ashley Brooke Monroe. Associate puppeteer and movement director Scarlet Wilderink.
Cast: Hiran Abeysekera, Brian Thomas Abraham, Rajesh Bose, Nikki Calonge, Mahnaz Damania, Fred Davis, Avery Glymph, Jon Hoche, Mahira Kakkar, Kirstin Louie, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Jonathan David Martin, Usman Ali Mughal, Uma Paranjpe, Salma Qarnain, Betsy Rosen, Celia Mei Rubin, David Shih, Sathya Sridharan, Daisuke Tsuji, Sonya Venugopal, Scarlet Wilderink, Andrew Wilson, and Adi Dixit.
Theater: Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Hiran Abeysekera and "Richard Parker" Bengal Tiger Puppet
Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Transforming a best-selling novel from page to stage is a risky affair. It takes a great deal of talent, imagination, and theatrical acumen to pull it off without getting bogged down in weighty narrative. Add to the mix a multiple Oscar-winning movie based on that novel, a film that is noted for its exceptional cinematography, and the odds of successfully reinterpreting all of that for a live performance are astronomical. So let us begin by heaping bounteous bravos and roses upon the creative team behind Life of Pi, opening tonight at the Schoenfeld Theatre in a sea of puppetry and stage magic that manages to capture all of the wonder, philosophic bent, and harrowing adventure of its predecessors.

Based on Yann Martel's 2001 book and adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, Life of Pi fuses allegory with a frightful tale about the will to live into a wonderfully balanced production that honors both. The story it tells is that of Piscine ("Pi") Patel, an extraordinarily courageous and resourceful 17-year-old Indian boy who survives for 227 days in a lifeboat after the freighter on which he and his family are traveling goes down in a storm. He is the only survivor, and it is his story that unfolds over the course of the two-hour (plus intermission) play.

From The Lion King to War Horse to King Kong, Broadway has seen masterful puppetry that has won over audiences by anthropomorphizing its animal characters. But, especially if you are unfamiliar with the novel or film director Ang Lee's mesmerizing 2012 adaptation, don't go into Life of Pi expecting to see some adorable puppets. There is not a Timon nor a Pumbaa among them. The animals on display here are genuinely animalistic (as in "carnivorous") and potentially very scary indeed. I'd leave the little ones at home.

While Life of Pi presents us with a cast of two dozen all told, including some extraordinary puppeteers, there really are just two characters that will remain etched in your memory. On the human side of the equation, there is the central performance of Hiran Abeysekera as Pi. It is a physically demanding role, requiring deft acrobatic skill and the ability to transform philosophic dialog and quirky humor into the seemingly invented-on-the-spot pithy words of a precocious teenage boy. Abeysekera won the Olivier Award for Best Actor for portraying Pi in London, and he is once again doing a stellar job.

But what's a protagonist without a worthy antagonist to play against? That would be the ferocious Royal Bengal tiger, dubbed "Richard Parker," who fills that role. The tiger and several other animals (among them, a zebra, a vicious hyena, and an orangutan) are aboard the freighter when it goes down. In due course, "Richard Parker" becomes Pi's unwelcome traveling companion aboard the lifeboat. And while they eventually reach a kind of truce for their mutual survival, it is an uneasy one that never loses its tension.

The Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Pi's tale unfolds while he is a patient in a hospital after he is finally rescued, a place we return to several times during the course of the production. That space becomes the play's framing device, in which Pi is telling his story to someone investigating the ship's sinking, a Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji). Okamoto is more than a little skeptical about what he is hearing, and he assumes the young man is delusional, a result of his traumatic experience. In response, Pi comes up with an alternate version of what happened during his nearly eight months on the open ocean. This explication, too, is harrowing, perhaps even more so than the seemingly fanciful one. In the end, his interrogator and we are left to select which story to believe. I know which one I'd choose.

The puppetry (designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell) and the human performances, with excellent work in the supporting roles that keep Pi connected with his close-knit family even after they are lost to him, are only part of the reason for the production's success. Much of the praise must go to director Max Webster, scenic designer Tim Hatley, lighting designer Tim Lutkin, and video designer Andrzej Goulding, who have managed to present Pi's narrow world in ways that sweep us along with him from start to end. We may admire the cinematography in Ang Lee's movie of this story, but nothing can thrill like the stage magic on hand here as we join Pi on his amazing journey.