Wednesday, April 5, 2023

REVIEW: Life of Pi

Review of the matinee performance on Saturday, April 1, 2023 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City, NY. Starring Hiran Abeysekera. Featuring Brian Thomas Abraham, Rajesh Bose, Avery Glymph, Mahira Kakkar, Celia Mei Rubin, Salma Qarnain, Sathya Sridharan, Daisuki Tsuji, and Sonya Venugopal. Based on the novel by Yann Martel. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti. Original music by Andrew T. Mackay. Scenic and costume design by Tim Hately. Puppeteer and movement direction by Finn Caldwell. Puppet design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell. Video and animation design by Andrzej Goulding. Lighting design by Tim Lutkin. Sound design by Carolyn Downing. Direction by Max Webster. 2 hours, 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A+

I went into Life of Pi knowing nothing about it - I haven't read the book, nor have I seen the film version. I'm not sure that matters because I understand that there are some big differences between all three, but at least I had the element of surprise. This production is a brilliant mix of enthralling storytelling and stunning theatricality. As the story (adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti) unfolded, you could hear a pin drop, and you could sense the entire audience leaning forward so as to soak it in that much deeper. Almost as one, we went along with this fantastic tale of brutal survival and wonder, laughing, gasping...feeling. It is of great credit to director Max Webster that all of this riveting drama feels simultaneously epic and intimate.

The blank canvas set designed by
Tim Hately is a magical box that transforms from a hospital room into a zoo, a crowded Indian street, a cargo ship, and, of course, a lifeboat. What is amazing about this though, isn't so much that there are so many varied settings, but rather how they seem to appear out of thin air. One imagines that the scene changes are as well choreographed as any dance number. Aided by the sumptuous lighting (designed by Tim Lutkin) and the superlative video and animation (designed by Andrzej Goulding), the theater becomes a storm tossed expanse of ocean. Seriously, it looks so real (from the mezzanine, anyway) that it wouldn't have surprised me at all if a sea spray shot out into the house. Andrew T. Mackay has scored the evening with a heart-pounding, evocative vibe that heightens everything.

The entire company of actors contributes in a myriad of roles and as extraordinary puppeteers. What a truly extraordinary and gifted group they are. There are a variety of puppets here. They play an orangutan (and her baby), a giraffe, a zebra, a sea turtle, a goat, a school of fish, and a scary hyena. These are not Lion King left overs; no, these are amazingly realistic, so much so, that many times I didn't even "see" the puppeteers. Finn Caldwell's meticulous design and breathtaking movement direction makes these creations come to thrilling life. But it is the Bengal tiger, humorously named Richard Parker, that steals the show. Voiced by Brian Thomas Abraham and played by eight ensemble members at various times, the animal is as real as possible, alternately terrifying and fascinating. There simply aren't words to adequately express the sheer beauty of this performance.

As a framing device, the play begins, refocuses the story, and ends with an urgent interview of Pi, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. As the interviewers, Daisuki Tsuji and Celia Mei Rubin (in her debut in the role), are intense and sympathetic, depending on their needs at any given moment. Mr. Tsuji is as uptight as one might expect from an insurance adjuster; the way he portrays the singularity of his business focus is maddening. Contrast that with Ms. Rubin's portrayal of a Canadian diplomat, whose warmth and empathy offers a comforting relief to all of us, including Pi. Other standouts include the aforementioned Mr. Abraham as the rough, crude ship's cook, and Mahira Kakkar and Rajesh Bose as Pi's parents, are all adults in the 17 year-old's life, and each perfectly captures the extremes of their personalities as told through the filter of a teenager.

There is a miraculous performance happening at the Schoenfeld, and that is from the utterly captivating 
Hiran Abeysekera. People will be talking about this star-turn for years. His athleticism is impressive (and exhausting even to watch). He charms with humor, frightens with careless bravado, and melts the heart with a self-awareness that, as acted, feels as though it is actually happening to him for the very first time. Blissfully brilliant - the actor, the character, the production.

When people ask me why I love theater as passionately as I do, I answer by talking about shows like Life of Pi. Nothing compares to seeing such artistry and sharing a deeply human experience happening right in front of you. 

📸: M. Murphy & E. Zimmerman

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