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Life of Pi

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Hiran Abeysekera  (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)



Life of Pi


By David Schultz


Based on the Booker Prize-wining novel by Yann Martel, this unique tale has been given new life on stage. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti has channeled all the inherent mystical magic of the book into a totally engrossing visual pageant. Directed with a knowing hand by Max Webster, and staged with astonishing craftmanship, this dreamlike tale seems fresh, even to the audiences who already are familiar with the plot.


There are various changes from the book within the production. The streamlining and cohesiveness jell perfectly as a live production. The story begins in a stark hospital room in Mexico circa 1978. A Japanese investigator, Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji) and a Canadian diplomat, Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie) are on a mission to find out how a cargo ship was sunk and what happened to the lone survivor, Pi Patel (Hiran Abeysekera), during his incredible 227 days lost at sea.


The emotionally distraught Pi ever so reluctantly begins his tale. In few seconds the chilly hospital recedes into the background as a zoo pops up magically. We are now back at his home in Pondicherry, India. His zookeeper parents (Rajesh Bose and Mahira Kakkar) dote on young Pi, as his sister (Sonya Venugopal) cheerfully teases him. It is at this juncture that various animals come into view -- all puppets that are moved about with unusual grace by puppeteers on full view.


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The Company of Life of Pi (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

A giraffe nibbles on leaves; butterflies flit about the air. Then larger, more impressive animals spring forth: a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and most impressively, a menacing Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. To temper Pi’s naïve thoughts that all the animals are sweet and harmless and can cause little or no harm to the humans, Pi’s father warns him of the potential animalistic threats to humans, he shockingly offers up a goat as a sacrifice to the Bengal tiger, as a warning to be aware and cautious.


The political unrest in their country has caused some harm to various animals in the zoo. There are riots and the family is unsure of how long this turmoil will last. The family, with strong urging by the father, leaves the zoo and heads for Canada with two of every zoo animal onboard the ship Tsimtsum.


The scene changes again in swift moments and we are on a freighter on the ocean. After a few calm days an immense storm brews and the ship is thrust into the violent ocean. All onboard, family and crew, appear to have perished -- except for Pi.


It is here where the visual scenic and lighting design heighten the senses. The stage floor becomes a vast roiling ocean as the rowboat that saves our hero becomes his life-saving safe haven. Then in swift fashion he is not alone, upon awakening from injuries, he discovers a veritable mini zoo onboard his tiny rowboat. A badly injured zebra as well as an orangutan, menacing hyena, a scampering rat, are all onboard… And swimming, circling the craft is Richard Parker who after a fight with Pi, leaps onto the vessel.


The true heart and emotional core of the play resides in the phantasmagorical scenes that play out with impeccable synchronicity. One by one the animals onboard are reduced until its just Pi and Richard Parker left to fend for each other’s survival. The struggle for dominance and the lifeforce to survive at all costs reign supreme. At various junctures the play shifts back momentarily to the hospital room with the ongoing interrogations. Then magically the bed in the hospital reverts into the rowboat and the vast openness of the sea again reveals itself. The hallucinatory, almost dreamlike visuals are compelling. Adding to the dramatic gravitas composer Andrew T. Mackay creates a propulsive musical score that grows imperceptibly in each scene, heightening the drama.  


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Hiran Abeysekera  (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)



The large cast of 24 actors, many who double as expert puppeteers, are integral to the smooth transitions within the play. The constant shift of realism and fantasy are gorgeously realized. The visual detailing of the puppet design by Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell cannot be overstated enough. The minute and intricate small details of all the animals on view are rendered in breathtaking strokes.


Near the end of Pi’s tale, the investigators are unsure of his rambling tale of survival, and goad Pi to finally give a second alternate tale of what happened on the boat. This version varies wildly from his initial story with those tortured animals and Richard Parker during their existential time on that boat. The revelation gives the audience an alternate viewpoint on what exactly transpired on the sea. This mesmerizing fever dream works on many levels, as the final scenes open up a sense of knowing and not knowing simultaneously.


Life of Pi

The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

236 West 45th Street

Tickets $99-$195.50.