Note: At the Jan. 15 performance of “Life of Pi,” the traditionally male role of Pi was played by understudy and ensemble member Uma Paranjpe, a female performer, and Pi was presented as a girl. To reflect this change, this article will use she/her pronouns to refer to Pi.
Adapting a familiar story for the stage is always a challenge. “Life of Pi” (2019), the story of a shipwrecked teenager stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a Royal Bengal tiger, is no exception. What may seem like an impossible feat of live theatre is brought to life with impressive authenticity at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.
Following an award-winning run on the West End in London, “Life of Pi” made its North American debut at the A.R.T. in December. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, the play is based on Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel, which Ang Lee also adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2012. The play is set to transfer to Broadway this spring and begin previews at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 9.
The play’s protagonist is Pi Patel (Uma Paranjpe), a 16-year-old girl whose family runs a zoo in Pondicherry, India in the late 1970s. The first few scenes of the play introduce us to her caring family, her love of animals and her devotion to religion — her family is Hindu, but she decides to take up Christianity and Islam as well. During a period of political instability, the Patels decide to move to Canada, boarding a cargo ship along with their animals in search of a better life. When the ship sinks in an unexpected storm, Pi finds herself stranded on a lifeboat. Her only company are her family’s animals — a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Royal Bengal tiger.
The action of the play cuts back and forth between Pi’s perilous 227-day journey at sea and a hospital room in Mexico where a Canadian diplomat (Kirstin Louie) and a harried insurance agent (Daisuke Tsuji) ask a recently rescued Pi to recount the story of her miraculous survival. While the hospital storyline takes up a little more time than it needs to, the transitions between Pi’s past and present are executed seamlessly. The play’s scenic design is incredibly dynamic — a hospital room turns into a zoo, a marketplace into a cargo ship, all with just a few small changes. After the stormy shipwreck, a lifeboat emerges from the stage, and the audience is transported to the open ocean along with Pi thanks to sound, lighting and projections that perfectly capture the turbulent environment. Lightning flashes across the sky, waves crash against the lifeboat and Pi is all alone … but not for long.
It’s hard not to take your eyes off the animals in “Life of Pi.” The play’s biggest strength is its spectacular animal puppetry, which includes everything from goats to fish to zebras. The animals’ skeletal designs allow the puppeteers to move them with such precision that, if you suspend your disbelief just a little bit, they almost feel real. The most impressive of them all is Richard Parker, a Royal Bengal tiger operated by three talented puppeteers. The play is at its best in scenes between Pi and Richard, who develop a unique bond. When Pi first comes face to face with Richard on the lifeboat, the audience can sense her fear. This is not just a testament to the puppeteers but also to Paranjpe, whose performance anchors the entire show. Onstage almost the entire time, Paranjpe’s Pi grows up over the course of the play from an innocent young girl full of excitement to a resourceful teenager forced to fend for herself in an unfamiliar world. Mahira Kakkar and Salma Shaw also give memorable performances as Pi’s doting mother and scientifically minded aunt, both of whom return to Pi as visions offering words of advice after the shipwreck.
Although Chakrabarti’s script doesn’t expand much on Martel’s epic story, it still leaves plenty of room for explorations of faith, spirituality and perseverance. In a memorable scene, the Patels are visiting a market in India when Pi is confronted by religious leaders from the nearby mosque, temple and church, each of whom try to convince Pi to fully commit to their faith. Later on, Pi prays to her many gods for mercy and uses the lessons she learned from the various religions to survive her harrowing experience at sea.
After Pi recounts her experiences, the skeptical insurance agent says her story couldn’t possibly be true and asks what really happened. In the end, viewers are forced to decide for themselves how much of Pi’s narrative is real. But don’t get too caught up in the answers — whether it’s true or not, Pi tells a tale like no other that speaks to the power of storytelling and reminds us to find the light even in moments of darkness.
“Life of Pi” at the A.R.T. reexamines the classic survival story with a talented cast, complex design elements and incredible animal puppets that come to life onstage.