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.
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 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.