The butterflies enter first, quivering gaily atop their sticks. Then a giraffe pokes her head in. A goat gambols. A hyena cackles. One zebra runs on. Then another. An orangutan swings through while her baby reposes on a branch nearby. Above, monkeys and meerkats chitter. In the first act of “Life of Pi,” a menagerie — menacing, delightful — entrenches itself on the stage of Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.
With dazzling imagination and sublime control, the show’s cast and crew conjure a delirious, dynamic, highly pettable world. And oh, is it a wonder. Though the play is ostensibly about one boy’s fraught survival after a disaster, that story is somewhat thin. “Life of Pi” instead succeeds as a broader tribute to human ingenuity and animal grace.
Directed by Max Webster and adapted by the playwright Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “Life of Pi” begins more somberly, in Mexico, in 1978. A grayed-out hospital room houses a sole patient, Pi Patel (Hiran Abeysekera). A Japanese cargo ship en route to Canada has sunk. Among its passengers were Pi and his family, who had set out from Pondicherry, India. And among its freight were the animals Pi’s zookeeper father tended. All aboard have drowned, except Pi, a traumatized 17-year-old who washed up in this fishing village after 227 days lost at sea.
Visiting him this morning are Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji), a representative from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, and Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie), from the Canadian Embassy. These guests have been charged with learning what happened to Pi. For their benefit, he spins a fantastic tale — incredible in every sense — about sharing a lifeboat with animals, initially several then finally just one, Richard Parker, an enormous, sinuous, very hungry Bengal tiger.
Between Richard Parker and Pi, adamant carnivore and lifelong vegetarian, there is a desperate struggle for dominance. Richard Parker needs to eat. Pi would prefer not to be eaten. But these two passengers eventually achieve a détente, even a kind of friendship, a hallucinatory acknowledgment of what is human within the animal and animal within the human. It is the example of Richard Parker — and his companionship, however imagined — that allows Pi to survive.
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“You’re the only reason I’m alive,” a despairing Pi says to his friend, midjourney. “It’s just you and me.”
But “Life of Pi” is a much larger affair than this small-man-big-cat duo. The cast runs to 24 actors, many of them also puppeteers, with a small fleet of crew members to make the whole show seaworthy. (The play originated in Sheffield, England, before moving to the West End and then to the American Repertory Theater in Boston, so yes, it floats.) Martel’s novel — absorbing, florid — is a work of magical realism. Webster, the director, makes sure to deliver the magic and the realism both.
Nodding to techniques pioneered by Robert Lepage and Improbable Theater, Webster encourages a beautiful synchrony of lighting (Tim Lutkin), video (Andrzej Goulding), sound (Carolyn Downing) and set (Tim Hatley, who also designed the costumes). Aided by the other production elements, the mise-en-scène constantly moves and shifts. The room becomes the boat. The boat recedes into the room. Sometimes both room and boat are there at once and a person might have to clap her hands across her mouth to stop herself from oohing, especially when the schools of fish surface or the stars begin to flicker. We are in the realm of fantasy here, of symbolism, but squint just a little and waves appear. Even from the mezzanine, I could feel — almost — a salt spray.
And the puppetry! Between Milky White of “Into the Woods” and the dinosaur and mammoth of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” New York has not been starved of extraordinary stick and cloth creations. But the animals here, designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, with movement direction by Caldwell, prowl and canter and leap with astonishing character and style. And Richard Parker, animated by three puppeteers at any given time, is the show’s striped jewel. Chuffing, growling and panting as he stalks the boat’s perimeter, he is at once beguiling, gentlemanly and quite dangerous. Abeysekera — a petite hurricane of an actor with reeling limbs and a clarion voice — is excellent in an exhausting role.
But Richard Parker (very briefly voiced by Brian Thomas Abraham) makes the more indelible impression. When he finally slunk onto dry land, I worried for him as I did not worry for Pi. He seemed so thin.
Toward the start of his tale, Pi promises his listeners that his story will make them believe in God. But while Martel’s novel has a deep and sometimes tendentious concern with religion and philosophy, Chakrabarti’s adaptation engages with these questions only glancingly.
At its most abstract, this a play about how we come to terms with our own choices, even with our own survival, and the stories we might tell to make those choices and that survival make sense. Trauma requires language, Pi insists. If you don’t find words to compass it, he says, “it becomes a wordless darkness, and you will never defeat it.” Yet language tends to recede whenever the animals are onstage. Want wonder? Want divinity? Look to the tiger burning bright. And then look to the human hands that tend the flame.
Eventually Pi offers an alternative version of what happened on that lifeboat, which Webster also stages. Stripped of animals, allegory and visual pleasure, this account is more plausible, though much darker. “Which is the better story?” Pi asks.
Depends what he means by “better.” But of course it’s the one with the animals. Because faced with such horror, or even with the ordinary hardships of daily life, anyone would prefer the fantasy, especially when it is rendered with such richness and invention. (A different show might have questioned the morality of extracting such pleasure, such delight, from a tale of privation. Not this one.) Significantly, neither story redeems what Pi has suffered. But only one has a tiger in it.
That roaring that you will hear at the show’s end? It’s the sound of a standing ovation.
Life of Pi
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, Manhattan; lifeofpibway.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.