In a time when Broadway theater has overall downsized from the mega musicals of the 1980s and ‘90s, having a show with real spectacle is few and far between, and even less often a show with real spectacle that is really good.
So I am elated to say that Life of Pi is the Broadway show that I’ve hungered for for years and didn’t know I was missing until now. Directed by Max Webster, it is adapted from the novel by Yann Maretl by Lolita Chakrabarti and is running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre at 236 W. 45th St. in New York City.
The novel Life of Pi came out in 2001 and the Ang Lee film adaptation in 2012, both to significant success. This stage production also has had significant success winning five Olivier Awards, including best new play and best actor for Hiran Abeysekera.
If the New York going theater audience doesn’t take to Life of Pi I don’t know if there’s any hope for us, because this is stellar theater.
The production has an intricately designed set by Tim Hatley, with multi-rotating elements and a boat that rises from the stage, an elemental video design and animation by Andrzej Goulding that is immersive but not distracting, and of course gorgeously detailed puppetry design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell that is used to create the animals that are essential to the narrative and are their own characters, most importantly the life sized Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, taking a team of three puppeteers to animate.
This is all top tier design and should be lauded, but these engaging production elements mean nothing without a compelling story and a strong cast to tell it.
Like the film, the stage production starts after the events that dominate the rest of the story. In this case, Pi, or Piscene Patel, played by Abeysekera, is in a hospital in Mexico in 1978, recovering from being lost at sea for 227 days. A Japanese official, Mr. Okamoto, played by Daisuke Tsuji, who is investigating the lost ship, as the ship was Japanese in origin, questions Pi as to how the ship sank. What he gets is a fantastic tale, which is minimally about the ship’s sinking, but more about Pi’s life from his family’s fleeing from political upheaval in the Pondicherry to Canada. His mother and father, played by Mahira Kakkar and Rajesh Bose respectively, run a zoo in India and are bringing their animals along on their trans-Pacific journey. When the ship is sunk during a storm, Pi says he ends up on a lifeboat with a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker the tiger. Chaos promptly ensues as the wild animals kill each other off with just Richard Parker and Pi as the lone survivors, Pi retreating to a small collective of floatable items attached by a line to the boat.
Pi, who has a strong fascination in religion, having attended Hindu, Christian, and Muslim services regularly has his faith along with his wits and courage tested over and over as food rations diminish and his life ebbs.
Everything in the play hinges on the performance of Abeysekera, as he acts with the animals and immerses himself in the environment. It almost feels like a one-man show at times if it wasn’t for the meticulous performances of the puppeteers, especially the trio handling Richard Parker.
The progressive wear and tear on Pi is artistically detailed as Webster has choreographed not only Abeysekera as an actor and his actions, but the ensemble as well as they come in to reposition the drama in an almost balletic and poetic movement of Pi. With the design elements added it consumes the senses of the audience.
I’m not one to make recommendations like this for a show, but with how the design elements work, particularly the video and lighting design, I would recommend getting front mezzanine seats versus orchestra seats as I think you’ll get a much better appreciation of the depth of scope and design from there as so much of the video and lighting design is presented on the stage floor, and the way the Schoenfeld Theatre is designed most of the orchestra seats’ sightlines are right at stage level with minimal viewing of the stage floor.
Life of Pi is a front runner for best play this season. Right now, it’s between this and Leopoldstadt. Life of Pi is an intense and exhilarating journey of life, death, and resurrection. It is why we have Broadway and one of the best stage experiences of the year.