The real stars of the show "Life of Pi" are puppets: a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a 450 pound Royal Bengal tiger. Although animated by skilled puppeteers who make them move, purr, whine and growl, those creatures become so incredibly real, that when the ‘animals’ behave like actual beasts, it’s difficult to watch. Theatrically it’s incredible but emotionally it is disturbing
First my disclaimer: When the book Life of Pi by Yann Mantel, winner of the Man Booker Prize, was released years ago, it captivated thousands of readers. So I purchased it, yet after reading several pages, I put it aside. Being a passionate animal person and a vegetarian, I realized the tragic fate of some of the animals would greatly upset me.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the production of the show at the Schoenfeld Theater. Maybe since there would be puppets instead of real animals, the savagery would be easier for me to handle. Yes and No.
Violence in India is escalating, so Pi’s father, who runs the Pondicherry Zoo, decides to move his family to Canada. Along with his wife, son Pi and daughter, he transports many of the animals. Unfortunately, there’s a storm and their cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.
The story begins in a hospital room, where Pi (short for Piscine,) the lone survivor of the disaster, is recovering. An official comes to the 17 year old to hear his story. The man is in a hurry and loses patience with the boy who relates a fanciful story about a being in the lifeboat with wild animals. The investigator wants the truth; he can’t accept Pi’s story. The official refuses to believe that for hundreds of days the boy and the man-eating Siberian target survived together on the boat.
Pi’s tale begins when the family was still in India and the innocent boy is open to ideas. Although raised as a Hindu, he also attends a Catholic church and a mosque.
When the ship sinks, Pi finds himself on a boat with a small supply of food and water, but he is not alone. Pi relates an unbelievable tale of his journey with a vicious hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a 450 pound Siberian tiger. The audience is mesmerized by his story which is enacted onstage and is astounded at his fortitude and bravery, especially when he eventually tames the tiger.
Hiran Abeysekera does a wonderful job as Pi. On stage the entire time, he displays a gamut of emotions, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, youthful, enthusiastic, and despondent.
The puppetry design by Finn Caldwell (co-puppet design, puppetry and movement direction) and Nick Barnes (co-puppet design), is incredibly realistic. Although the viewer sees the puppeteers and the puppets aren’t completely solid, the viewer fixates on facial expressions. Although the animals obviously aren’t real, they are much too vivid and lifelike. So when the animals ‘behave' like animals and attack one another, sometimes tearing them to shreds, the viewer recoils in distress.
In fact, early on in the story, Pi’s father, the zookeeper, cruelly teaches his children a lesson about the harshness of the world by allowing the new Siberian tiger named Richard Parker to tear Pi’s pet goat to shreds. This later sets up the anger Pi feels for Richard Parker, the tiger.
“The Life of Pi” is a spectacle with incredible staging. It’s not just the animals that make it visually spectacular. There’s the choreography of the performers who manipulate the scenery and props to make a lifeboat, a hospital, fluttering butterflies, swimming fish, and more.
Finally, to appease the investigator, Pi provides another version of what could have happened. Which do you believe? he asks the man. Which do we believe? And, then again, does it matter which story is true?
“The Life of Pi” deals with philosophy and truth, religion, cruelty, and survival. One can immerse himself in the philosophy of the play or just be awed by the artistry and skill of the staging and the puppetry. The play offers a unique theatrical experience-one that shouldn’t be missed.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45 St.
New York, NY