Review: 'Life of Pi' Brilliantly Contains Novel on the Stage

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday December 22, 2022

Adi Dixit and the puppeteers for Richard Thomas in "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater
Adi Dixit and the puppeteers for Richard Thomas in "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater  (Source:Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

It wasn't surprising to see the ushers on the watch for theatergoers sneaking pics during performances of "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater. This British import is so gorgeous there's little wonder that some would want to share with friends. Plus, there's the prestige factor: as in London, tickets are likely scarce for the Cambridge run, which runs through January 29, and to document seeing it in the relatively intimate confines of the Loeb Drama Center is worth bragging rights. (For ticket information, follow this link).

In short, "Life of Pi's" reputation precedes it. Arriving in Cambridge on its way to Broadway after it transferred to the West End from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield after its 2019 premiere. It London, it wowed the critics and won Five Olivier Awards, including Best Play for playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, who did the adaptation. But does it live up to the hype?

A scene from "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater
A scene from "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater  (Source: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

For those who know Yann Martel's book, the idea of a stage adaptation may appear unfathomable. How can the story that includes wild animals, political unrest, a shipwreck, and a prolonged sequence of its titled character floating in the Pacific Ocean be contained on a stage? Also, there's the question of its philosophical and psychological underpinnings, which somewhat stymied Ang Lee in his terrific 2012 film adaptation.

Critics of both the film and stage adaptations make the same point — that "Life of Pi" is hindered by its theological talk and a dully conceived investigative framework. For them, it is an uneven, very wet God story. But like the film, the sheer wonder of it outweighs any of these dramatic concerns, which may seem prosaic amidst its visual splendor and superb staging.

Both a mystery story and adventure epic, Chakrabarti's shrewd adaptation unfolds in flashbacks — a framework that works very well in Pi telling of his survival after 227 days at sea with a Bengal tiger as company. When political unrest hits the Indian city where Pi and his family run a zoo, they sell the animals to one in Canada with hopes of expatriating. To do so, they join the animals in passage aboard a freighter. But during a storm, Pi is thrown overboard. He finds shelter on a lifeboat where he is joined by a number of the zoo's animals: an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and the tiger, Richard Parker, named for the man who captured him.

One of the puppeteers with Richard Parker from "Life of Pi"
One of the puppeteers with Richard Parker from "Life of Pi"  (Source: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

What was created onscreen with CGI is made here with the wonder of the puppetry designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell. Caldwell is also credited with the puppet and movement direction. This is a master class in stagecraft, using essential theatrical elements to most dramatic effect possible, so much so that Richard Parker gives the show's stand-out performance, conveying both majesty and menace with every gesture. (Parker is played by three of the show's eight puppeteers). Such praise does not diminish the work of its large, first-rate cast. Adi Dixit makes a most likable and convincing Pi in a performance of great physicality; and he gets terrific support from Rajesh Bose, Mahira Kakkar, and Sonya Venugopal as his father, mother, and sister, along with each actor playing multiple roles. And the puppetry is executed so deftly that the puppeteers all but disappear, making the illusion complete.

What makes "Life of Pi" such a remarkable experience is the synergy between director Max Webster and the design team (who include scenic and costume designer Tim Hatley, lighting designer Tim Lutkin, sound designer Carolyn Downing, and video designer Andrzej Goulding). Their collaboration uses turntables and visual effects to such a dizzying effect it might be smart to take Bonine beforehand. The adventure story unfolds on a boat that seamlessly rises and falls as needed, as do the walls of the Mexican hospital which appear when Pi is being interrogated by an insurance investigator attempting to learn how the freighter sank from its only survivor. How his story is seamlessly brought to life makes for a spectacular theater experience, thrilling in its adventure, and thought-provoking in larger philosophical concerns.

"Life of Pi" continues through January 29 at the Loeb Drama Center, American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, follow this link.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].