LIFE OF PI Awash In Possibilities — Review

Hiran Abeysekera and Richard Parker (Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink, Andrew Wilson) | Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 30, 2023 10:00 PM

In the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, as one character says, “observation and analysis are key to understanding the natural world.” The titular lead (capably played by Hiran Abeysekera), a young boy whose zoo-owning family flees their native India’s turmoil in 1976, learns this the hard way when their ship is wrecked by a powerful storm and he’s left stranded on a lifeboat with a fearsome tiger named Richard Parker.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti and director Max Webster, who premiered their version in the West End before bringing it to Broadway, turn the tale into a biologist’s dream, populating the stage—awash in Andrzej Goulding’s remarkable video designs—with Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes’ cavalcade of inventive puppet designs (giraffes, hyenas, orangutans, oh my). Under Caldwell’s movement direction, fish dart about with hypnotic swiftness, butterflies float as gracefully as ever, and Richard Parker takes on more character than some of his human counterparts onstage this season.

Before his nautical misadventure, Pi (short for Piscine) is a wide-eyed teen curious about his place in the universe. Growing up around animals, he understands the food chain but wonders whether Pondicherry’s church, temple or mosque will provide the bigger answers he seeks. Life deals him an unbearable tragedy as a means of exploring his options, and Pi spends his days at sea contemplating mortality, even as it seems less immediately likely.

Hiran Abeysekera, Mahira Kakkar and company | Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Though the production is top-to-bottom visually arresting, it doesn’t spend much time examining the symbiotic relationship between man and beast. For all its initial high-minded talk of political parties being incapable of coexisting and Pi’s notion that all religions are variations on the same belief, the play is essentially over by the time our hero tames Richard Parker and life-saving peace is achieved aboard the lifeboat.

This takes some of the fantastical bite out of the show. No longer centered on the glorious cohabitation of natural balance, a dampened weight is given to a social worker’s later belief that Pi’s recounting is mere fiction. Whether the boy’s story checks out, and how much that cosmically matters, has always been at the core of Martel’s inquiry, but a production built on wonderment should be wary of letting the whimsical air out of its sails.

Salma Shaw, Rowan Magee & Celia Mei Rubin | Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Tim Hatley’s scenic design wondrously conjures up a lifeboat that takes up an entire universe when it asks us to board it, yet seems as tiny as Pi’s account is unlikely when not in use. Along with Tim Lutkin’s lighting, which turns a bustling market into a salty cargo ship with the flick of a switch, they exemplify the height of simple, jaw-dropping stagecraft.

But without that overwhelming sense of majesty—call it god, call it nature—and with a pesky intermission meddling with the 2-hour production’s momentum, Life of Pi falls a bit short of the endless possibility suggested by its lead’s name. Bring the kids, bring the edibles, and prepare to have your ship gently rocked.

Life of Pi is in performance at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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