Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi has been just acclaimed for its depiction of a young man who, faced with daunting trauma as the sole survivor of a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean, recasts his story as a fantastical fable of survival that may offer more truth than the nuts-and-bolts facts of his experience.
But where Ang Lee’s 2012 film made our young hero’s self-spun narrative literal, with a CG tiger sharing the life raft with our hero, Lolita Chakrabarti’s enchanting new stage adaptation takes a more stylized approach — with director Max Webster and his production team drawing on magnificent stagecraft to bring young Pi’s version of events to glorious and dreamlike life.
We meet Pi as a 17-year-old Indian refugee in a hospital, where he is recovering from his 227-day ordeal on a life raft after the sinking of the cargo ship that was carrying him, his tight-knit family and the zoo animals that they were transporting to Canada as they fled political upheaval in their home country in the 1970s. Hiran Abeysekera, who won an Olivier Award for his performance in the London production, is mesmerizing in the role — alternating between bright-eyed boyish innocence to canny, strong-willed resolve to world-weary insouciance as he clings to his version of events under questioning from an executive for the shipping company (Daisuke Tsuji) and an embassy official (Kirstin Louie).
And he has a whopper of a tale to spin. As the cargo ship sank, Pi says he was tossed into a life raft along with some of his family zoo’s animals — including a wounded zebra and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who is brought to full and vibrant life by a team of puppeteers (designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes). Webster also deploys stunning stagecraft throughout: Tim Hantley’s sets (and costumes) shift from hospital room to lifeboat seamlessly, while Andrzej Goulding’s video design, Tim Lutkin’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound all contribute to the visceral feeling of being caught in a storm at sea — or fighting for survival while adrift in the middle of nowhere. And the design keeps yielding more gasp-inducing surprises as the story progresses.
The overall production is visually captivating, particularly in the mezzanine section of Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre where you can see the full scope of Webster & Co.’s achievement. But Webster has not neglected the raw emotional details of Pi’s account, delivering a story that has more than just visual heft. You are swept into an epic story that is really about storytelling, about the ever-more-elaborate stories we tell ourselves to explain and soften the impact of the trauma that we experience in our lives. Life of Pi is a marvel.