When a character promises a life story so inspirational it’ll make a believer of an atheist, the tale better come through on some big-time convincing. Life of Pi, Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaption of Yann Martel’s heart-tugging 2001 novel opening tonight at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, won’t likely be churning out any religious converts, but renewed faith in the art of puppetry is all but guaranteed.
Starring the winning young actor Hiran Abeysekera, reprising his Olivier Award-winning London turn as the title character, Life of Pi, directed by Max Webster, sticks closer to the novel than to Ang Lee’s 2012 film adaptation, building the plot around a maritime investigation rather than the writing of a book – and, of course, replacing CGI beasties with enough fully articulated life-size puppets to populate a zoo, or at least a lifeboat. All aboard, at one time or another, are a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, the odd sea turtle, a hyena-bait water rat and, most impressive of all, a massive Bengal tiger with the unlikely name of Richard Parker.
How the creatures and young Pi come to share a small vessel adrift in the Pacific will come as no surprise whether you’ve read the novel or seen the movie, and if you haven’t experienced either Life of Pi has an exposition delivery system ready and waiting. Not unlike those spiritual mysteries of the ’70s wherein stigmata-palmed novitiates (Agnes of God) and horse-blinding fanatics (Equus) stumped rational-minded interlocutors for the better part of two acts, Pi pits its open-hearted hero against a no-nonsense investigator sent round to get to the bottom of both a mystery – why did that ship sink? – and loads of spiritual folderol.
“Are you a religious man Mr. Okamoto?,” the hospitalized, still traumatized Pi asks the investigator looking into the sinking of a merchant ship. “Religion,” comes the response, “is a habit rather than a truth. A crutch in times of need.”
Any bets on how quickly the skeptic will have a change of heart after Pi finishes his whopper of a fish tale?
Granted, it really is some tale. Piscine Molitor Patel – he prefers Pi – is a 17-year-old, religiously searching (if ecumenical) Indian boy from Pondicherry, embarking, along with his parents, sister and cratefuls of animals from the family zoo, to Canada to escape the political unrest of 1970s India. When a storm sinks the ship, the gentle-souled, vegetarian Pi makes his way to a lifeboat, which he’ll soon be sharing with some fellow castaways of the four-legged variety.
As the fearsome zoo creatures soon make meals of one another, Pi finds himself a last-man-floating with the ferocious Richard Parker, the 450-pound jungle cat intimidated into a fairly peaceful coexistence by some circus-training tips Pi recalls in ghostly visits from his animal-expert father. (Other human apparitions arrive too, each offering Pi some much-needed survival tips and life lessons).
As the days drag into months and drinking water dwindles to zilch, Pi’s chances seem ever more dim, his story, as related to the skeptical Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), ever more outlandish. Before too long the tiger is talking back to Pi, and that’s before things get really weird.
Still, the kid knows how to spin a terrific yarn. Even Broadway audiences still tickled by the bovine Milky White of Into the Woods and the massive prehistoric creatures of Lincoln Center’s The Skin of Our Teeth will be charmed by the creatures of Pi, courtesy of puppetry and movement director Finn Caldwell and his co-designer Nick Barnes.
Same goes for the work of set and costume designer Tim Hatley, video designer Andrzej Goulding, and lighting designer Tim Lutkin (their combined Olivier trophies could capsize a ship of their own). At one point, Pi jumps overboard and is swallowed by the sea/stage, a bit of theatrical trickery no less effective for its simplicity.
Still, visual appeal can’t quite wash away a stacked-deck ending, or make a convincing case for the fanciful over the plausible. Deep down, Mr. Okamoto probably agrees.
Title: Life of Pi
Venue: Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
Director: Max Webster
Written By: Lolita Chakrabarti, adapted from Yann Martel’s novel
Principal Cast: Hiran Abeysekera, Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink, Brian Thomas Abraham, Rajesh Bose, Avery Glymph, Mahira Kakkar, Kirstin Louie, Salma Qarnain, Sathya Sridharan, Daisuke Tsuji, Sonya Venugopal
Running time: 2 hr 15 min (including intermission)