|LIFE OF PI|
Tigers and zebras and rainstorms, oh my! The truly remarkable theatrical stagecraft one witnesses during “Life of Pi,” now on stage on Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, is admittedly something that audiences will remember – and likely talk about -- for quite some time. Sadly, though, the show’s breathtaking visual effects prove to be the best reason to see this otherwise unimpressive adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel.
I suspect even Julie Taymor is impressed by the elaborate puppetry (co-designed by Finn Campbell and Nick Barnes) that brings the menagerie of an Indian zoo to vivid life, most notably the fierce Bengal tiger oddly named Richard Parker, who proves to be the biggest threat to Pi’s continued existence.
Meanwhile, viewers of all ages will marvel at the inventiveness of the show’s design team – led by Tim Hatley (sets and costumes), Andrezj Goulding (video), Tim Lutkin (lighting), Carolyn Doning (sound) – who, among their many triumphs, make a small boat emerge from a drawing on the stage floor and then set it careening on a storm-filled sea where you can feel the waves at your seat.
As for the plot, it concerns a spunky Indian teenager named Pi (superbly played by Olivier Award winner Hiran Abeyeskera, navigating this difficult journey with ease) who ends up shipwrecked – with nothing but some animals for company -- after the boat he’s taking with his family to Canada suddenly sinks into the ocean. He miraculously manages to survive for nearly eight months, but what really happened during that perilous time is the philosophical crux of the story.
However, unlike in the book (and Ang Lee’s brilliant film version), the story is not told as a flashback by a middle-aged Pi, who has had time to reflect on his ordeal. Here, it’s related by the troubled young man while recovering in a Mexican hospital and being interrogated by a rather unsympathetic Japanese insurance agent (Daisuke Tsui), one of the many wrong-headed changes in Lolita Chakrabarti’s simplistic adaptation.
Indeed, I believe the show may be more involving if you’re completely unfamiliar with the source material – although I legitimately wonder how many people that can be given the overwhelming success of both Martel’s book and Lee’s film. But for those who already know the unforgettable story, listening to it again does the tale (and its tellers) no favors.
Indeed, both Chakrabarti and director Max Webster are so eager to unpack the show’s bag of tricks that they give short shrift to Pi’s growing up, which actually has a lot do with how he survives his ordeal. Here, everything takes place in a matter of months – not years – including Pi’s involvement (and questioning) of organized religion. It all goes by so fast, it practically blurs together.
In addition, his older brother Ravi has been turned into, for no discernible reason, his older sister Rani (Sonya Venugopal, who deserves more stage time). Other characters, including Pi’s impatient father (an imposing Rajesh Bose) barely make an impression, and others feel completely irrelevant. (Indeed, the sketchiness of the writing makes it hard to judge the acting prowess of the large cast.)
It could be worse, though; they could have turned “Life of Pi” into a jukebox musical. (“It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Talk to the Animals” all come to mind). Still, a first-rate play -- in every aspect -- would have served this larger-than-life story much better than this eye-catching but often mind-numbing production.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Hiran Abeysekera, Brian Thomas Abraham, Rajesh Bose, Nikki Calonge, Mahnaz Damania,Fred Davis, Avery Glymph, Jon Hoche, Mahira Kakkar, Kirstin Louie, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee,Jonathan David Martin, Usman Ali Mughal, Uma Paranjpe, Salma Qarnain, Betsy Rosen,Celia Mei Rubin, David Shih, Sathya Sridharan, Daisuke Tsuji, Sonya Venugopal,Scarlet Wilderink, Andrew Wilson & Adi Dixit
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036