The Broadway Theatre Review: Life of Pi
“Will you join us?” This is the compelling question asked within the new Broadway adaptation of Life of Pi by an engaging young man who has just survived a trauma more intense than any of us, most likely, could imagine, let alone survive. He has wound up in a Mexican hospital room and is being asked, most insistently, to tell his story to two interested parties; a representative of the Canadian Embassy, Lulu Chen, played strongly by Kirstin Louie (PBS’s “Endeavour“), and a representative of the shipping company, Mr. Okamoto, captivatingly portrayed by Daisuke Tsuji (“Invasion“), who are not exactly on the same exact page. Or share the same interest.
Crawling out from underneath, the boy, exceptionally well played by Hiran Abeysekera (RSC’s Hamlet), tells them that his name is Pi and that he has “had a terrible trip,” which is the understatement of the Broadway season. All this, just before the stage swells and crashes forward most majestically into a world that draws us in most completely. The transformations, and I definitely mean each and everyone, are utterly magnificent and awe-inspiring, but that first one tells us so much, but not all, about the voyage we have all signed up for, pretty much in the same way that The Lion King found its way to overwhelm our senses back in the day. But this play and this production are just so much more than all that. It delivers in a way that must be seen to be believed, as the stage moves, flows, opens, and emotes in the most astounding of ways, leaving you tantalized at almost every turn.
Butterflies and giraffes emerge, drawing us into a zoo so small that it can fit inside Pi’s head, as this exceptionally well-crafted production, based most lovingly on the award-winning novel by Yann Martel (Beatrice and Virgil), invites us into a visual that is outrageously tender yet profoundly beautiful. Adapted most engagingly by Lolita Chakrabarti (Red Velvet), this epic journey through the ocean is both surprisingly gorgeous in its delivery and emotionally gut-punching in its connection. We begin to see as we are instructed, and feel the way the weight and depths of the tragedy that unfolds.
A cargo ship sets out from India, filled with an assortment of wild caged animals from the zoo, alongside Pi’s tender and gloriously embodied family. Their destination is Canada, where Pi’s father, played with wise warm by Rajesh Bose (RTC’s Indian Ink), hopes to create a more safe life for the whole menagerie. They are escaping the violent unrest in their homeland, but when a storm comes somewhere in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, far from any land that might save them, the escape becomes something quite the opposite, leaving the sweet-natured sixteen-year-old boy stranded on a lifeboat with four other survivors, a hungry hyena, a broken zebra, a protective orangutan, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The story is fantastical, and utterly hard to believe, Mr. Okamoto tells Pi. This straight-laced all-business man from Japan requires the true story, not this manufactured one. He needs to know the details of the sinking of the ship. The ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ and as directed most beautifully by the wondrously talented Max Webster (Regent’s Park’s Antigone), the “better” story that is given astounds, just like it did within the pages of the Man Booker Prize-winning book. Walking in, knowing the book, one of the most pronounced questions that floated around my curious mind was how were they going to tell this complicated tale. Would it work on the stage? Would we believe in the tale we are being told?
The simple answer is yes, most assuredly and most magically. And that, no surprise here, is due to the fine cast that has been assembled, including Brian Thomas Abraham (West End/Broadway’s Harry Potter…) as the Cook/Voice of Richard Parker; Avery Glymph (Broadway’s The Skin of Our Teeth) as Father Martin/Russian Sailor/Admiral Jackson; Mahira Kakkar (“The Blacklist“) as Nurse, Amma, Orange Juice; Salma Qarnain (off-Broadway’s Acquittal) as Mrs. Biology Kumar/Zaida Khan; Sathya Sridharan (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim); and Sonya Venugopal (NCT’s Annie) as Rani, as well as the others already mentioned. They bring a level of connectivity that radiates out, filling our collective hearts with understanding and love.
The emotional engagement is phenomenal in its weight and how well the tale resonates across the ocean and the stage, but none of that would work as well as it does if not for the phenomenal talent of the whole production/design team, namely; the breathtaking scenic and costume design by Tim Hatley (West End/Broadway’s Travesties), the detailed and dynamic puppet designs by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes, the exceptionally vivid video design by Andrzej Goulding (Broadway’s & Juliet), the beautifully integrated lighting design of Tim Lutkin (West End’s Back to the Future) and the impeccable work of the sound designer Carolyn Downing (NT/PH’s Downstate). The staging morphs, expanding and contracting like living and breathing animals, unpacking environments and emotions using the magic of stagecraft, unlike anything I’ve seen before. It surprises and engages, giving you more and more moments of clarity and connection, as he dives deeper and deeper into the trauma of fear and the desire to survive.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to Richard Parker?” Yes, yes we do. Most definitely, as the survival tactics spin forward, on a boat that magically appears out of nowhere time and time again. We can’t look away, thanks to the strong performances enlivened by the talented crew of puppeteers; Richard Parker, Nikki Calonge, Fred Davis, Jonathan David Martin, Betsy Rosen, Celia Mei Rubin, Scarlet Wilderink, and Andrew Wilson, creating visuals that elevate and expand over and over again. The waves crash over the bow, shifting the boy, his boat, and its occupants through a hardship that is ever so emotionally overwhelming to take in. The production takes us on a journey, from the most idyllic space through a story that lands on the powerful shore of determination, tackling animalistic fear and a personal belief in self that resonates. Man, really is “the most dangerous animal in the zoo“, make no mistake about that, but Life of Pi knows exactly where to take us, and doesn’t fail us in the voyage.
“Drunk on water, ” Pi unpacks his voyage of survival to those two who are needing to know, where fear can poison everything, yet can also lead a man to stand up tall to a tiger. Or a hyena. I can’t even begin to describe how wonderfully engaging Abeysekera is in the lead role, nor how magically the stage shifts and floats from one continent to another. It is one of those ‘you must see it to believe it‘ kinda theatrical events, filled to the rim with emotionally powerful moments and unbelievably telling bits of magic and wonder, enhanced most touchingly by the original music of Andrew T. Mackay. Endurance and hope are at its core, but the structuring and the visual engagement of the voyage are what truly delivers this tale onto our shore, and into our heart. Having won five Olivier Awards including Best Play in the West End, Life of Pi makes the journey over the other ocean to find its place at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway. And for that, we must stand up and all cheer, “this is my boat” as strongly as Pi does. Buy your tickets asap (try to sit in the front mezz, not the orchestra), because is one ride you want to experience. But trust me, this ship isn’t going to sink anytime soon. It’s just far too strongly built.
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