Move over, Lion King–you’ve got competition on 45th Street. There’s a new boss in town, name of Richard Parker, and he’s changing the game for animal action on Broadway. Puppet animal action, that is, but call the co-star of Life of Pi a “puppet” and he’s likely to rip your head off. I thought the Main Stem’s King Kong was pretty fierce but Parker is hardcore, stripping flesh right down to the bone and threatening to chow down on our human protagonist at any moment. Ferosh, as the kids used to say.
Speaking of which: let me state that Life of Pi, at the Schoenfeld, is not a show for kids, at least not little ones. Things get pretty gnarly out there on the high seas for Pi, the inquisitive and ingenious shipwreck survivor, and his surly companion. Much red material of some kind–I couldn’t tell if it was felt or plastic–is consumed. War Horse, another West End import that expertly used puppeteers, was equally devastating, but in a different way. Life of Pi goes for the throat–and if you surrender yourself to it, you may find yourself with a lump in yours by the time it concludes.
Yann Martel’s prize-winning 2001 book was previously adapted into a film in 2012, winning an Oscar for director Ang Lee and three other trophies, including Best Visual Effects. CGI and 3D brought Martel’s menagerie to life onscreen and would seem to be the final word on lifting it from the page but a creative team led by director Max Webster has at least equalled that achievement. But all of it radiates outward from playwright Lolita Chakrabarti Obe’s book, a finely wrought distillation of the text with plentiful action and a philosophical POV.
The faith of Pi, a teenager with an omnivorous appetite for religious knowledge–he’s a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Catholic all at once–is tested by the shipwreck that drowns his zookeeping family enroute from India to Canada and leaves him adrift with his curiously named companion for more than 200 days. Survival, however, was one thing. In a hospital room, Pi tries to explain his story to a delegate from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, which was responsible for the vessel, and a Canadian Embassy worker. But he can’t break through their lack of belief, so he spins a fantastical narrative told in flashbacks, one that plumbs our need for storytelling to make sense of the brutal realities of life. And thus the theater becomes an arena, with goats, hyenas, zebras, and an orangutan seamlessly intermingled with the human cast, video projections transforming the stage floor into a raging sea and the back walls into a starfield, and lighting and sound effects that pulse and ripple throughout the venue. In a word, breathtaking.
The human endeavor should be celebrated, so all due credit to Tim Hatley (scenic and costume design), Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes (for the incredibly well-defined puppets), Andrzej Goulding (video), Tim Lutkin (lighting), Carolyn Downing (sound), David Brian Brown (wigs), and Andrew T. Mackay (music). The gyrations and gesticulations of the many puppeteers, in tight spaces and environments that morph from townsquares to ships before our eyes, are hugely impressive. (The flying fish are particularly eye-catching.) None of these illusions would work, however, if we didn’t believe in the cautious, codependent bond that develops between Pi and Parker, and Hiran Abeysekera is a revelation as Pi, as dexterous as a swashbuckler (there’s a wonderful “swimming” scene) and intriguingly off-kilter; he doesn’t want us to like him, but to understand him, the harder task. The actor, who won an Olivier for his performance, emerges as a king of the Broadway jungle, and well and truly brings Pi to life.