Regional Reviews: Boston
Life of Pi
This is Pi's promise as he begins to unveil his story, a miraculous tale of survival against all odds. The year is 1978, and we are introduced to Piscine Patel, Pi for short (Adi Dixit), in a hospital in Mexico. After a harrowing journey across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat, he's been asked to explain how he survived eight long months adrift at sea. And–more incredulously–did he really share that lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger?
Like Pi's story, adapting the bestselling novel "Life of Pi" to the stage centers around a leap of faith. For Pi, the question is how to convey an incredible journey so that his listeners believe every word. For the creative team behind this adaptation, the objective is to find a new way into a narrative already familiar from Yann Martel's original 2001 novel and Ang Lee's 2012 film adaptation.
Directed by Max Webster and adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, the piece is transformed into a sumptuous stage production making its North American premiere at the American Repertory Theater, having originated in London. It will move to Broadway in the spring.
I wasn't sure how Martel's novel would translate, since it hinges on readers' ability to conjure Pi's unlikely journey in their imaginations and ultimately decide the truth for themselves. But, despite some choppy waters along the journey, I emerged at the end of this show as a convert, buoyed by the inventive stagecraft that justifies why this story was brought to the stage.
This adaptation opens with our primary skeptic: Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), here on official business to ascertain why the cargo ship Tsimtsum sank as it crossed the ocean. Pi and his family were on board, traveling from their home in Pondicherry, India, to Canada to relocate their family zoo. In the wreckage, Pi tells us he was separated from his mother, father and sister, never to see them again. He is the only known passenger who lived.
The key to his survival? A lifeboat, with a minimal supply of food and water onboard. But the journey is not Pi's alone; it's every animal for themselves as Pi is forced to share his vessel with several of his family's zoo members: a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and–most fearsome of all–the tiger, Richard Parker. This production becomes immediately captivating as the showdown of wits and wills commences between Pi and his tiger companion. We watch boy and tiger circle each other as Pi employs logic and reason to stay alive and establish an unexpected co-existence.
"We believe what we see," Mr. Okamoto says in response to Pi's wild story. And on the A.R.T. stage, it's impossible not to see–and believe–Richard Parker as a living, breathing, snarling equal to his human acting partner. The creation of designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, Richard Parker comes to life through a team of onstage puppeteers as every movement conjures the animal in thrilling form: a frightening leap through the air to attack his prey; a weary collapse after a failed attempt to secure food. The puppeteering team's work is extraordinary, and this production knows it; Richard Parker even gets the final bow.
The other animals are also expertly performed, especially the orangutan Orange Juice, who radiates a palpable maternal warmth. But the theatrical magic on hand is not limited to this impressive puppet work. Webster's entire visual production stuns, from Andrzej Goulding's seamless projections of waves and weather, to Tim Lutkin's evocative lighting that captures the simultaneous wonder and terror of time passing. (Seats further back are recommended in order to see the projections on the stage floor.)
By adapting Pi's tale to the theater, Chakrabarti has smartly pared down the episodic events of the novel to its most essential scenes, keeping the story brisk and lean. This is a wise approach, since we're hungry from the outset for the white hospital walls to fill with vibrancy and color. But one side effect is that most scenes outside the lifeboat feel like filler, providing necessary exposition but without enough emotional underpinning to be completely engaging. The framing of Mr. Okamoto interviewing Pi includes a new character crafted by Chakrabarti: Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie), a young Canadian diplomat who looks out for Pi's wellbeing. But these two observers are written in broad strokes, and continually returning to them takes the air out of Pi's adventures.
There are other trade-offs, including the carnivorous island that Pi encounters near the end of his sailing. This hallucinatory interlude in the novel, so evocative and unsettling on the page, appears here as a brief monologue without much visual accompaniment, and could have been excised.
What anchors the heart of the story is Adi Dixit's confident performance as Pi. For most of the journey, Dixit plays the only human character on stage. It's a testament to his effortlessness as a performer that he finds the humanity within all of the spectacle that surrounds him. Dixit proves adept at tracing Pi's emotional and physical journey from a goofy sixteen-year-old to the self-possessed man who we meet in Mexico, ready to share his truth.
As he recounts where he's been and what he's seen, Pi asks us to trust our belief over what we assume is fact. Every story is an invention, to some degree; and we ultimately put our faith in what feels true. While this adaptation doesn't always dig deep enough on land, the magic conjured before us may be enough to make believers of us all.
Life of Pi runs through January 29, 2023, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA. For tickets and information, please visit americanrepertorytheater.org, call 617-547-8300, or visit the Loeb Drama Center box office.
Cast (in alphabetical order):