(Cover Photo: Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge (“Richard Parker”) of "LIFE OF PI" now playing through January 29, 2023 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. Photo Credit Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
By Kevin T. Baldwin
“I had no idea a living being could sustain so much injury and go on living." - Yann Martel
Note: Production includes strobe lighting, flashing lights, haze, and fog, and features depictions of perilous moments, including stylized violence.
(Warning: The following review may contain spoilers)
The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) presents the visual spectacle "LIFE OF PI" and, truly, the production is a magnificent, fantastic kaleidoscope of colors and a phantasmagoria of breathtaking images- truly visceral storytelling at its finest.
Winner of five 2022 Olivier Awards including Best New Play, the ads one might have seen for "LIFE OF PI" simply do not do this staging justice.
Yes, there is puppetry reminiscent of Broadway's "The Lion King" but that is where the similarities between the two shows ends and where the additional creativity involved in this production begins.
There are also definitely some not so family-friendly "Circle of Life" moments that Disney was afraid to elaborate on that "LIFE OF PI" fully explores here. So, any young children coming to see the show should come well informed.
Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, "LIFE OF PI" is based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martell.
The A.R.T. production is ably directed by Max Webster.
Adi Dixit (Pi) is a teenager living in India. Pi's family operates a zoo but, due to growing unrest, Pi and his family set sail aboard a cargo ship to emigrate from India to Canada along with a cargo hold of animals from the zoo.
At first glance, Dixit might appear a little unconvincing as a teenager. However, that belief is ultimately suspended as the talented Dixit, as "Pi," commands the stage for much of the show.
(Photo: Celia Mei Ruben, Nikki Calonge, Rowan Magee (“Black and White”), Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Sathya Sridharan (“Mamaji”), and the CAST of "LIFE OF PI" now playing through January 29, 2023 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. Photo Credit Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
The ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and Pi is left stranded on a lifeboat with just four other "survivors."
Months later, Pi recounts the tale of his miraculous survival to Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie) and insurance investigator, Mr. Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji). However, they are skeptical as Pi recalls the additional "passengers" in his lifeboat: a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger.
All were animals from Pi's family's zoo which escaped on board the ship and, somehow, made it into the water and climbed onto Pi's lifeboat.
The puppetry used to facilitate the imagery of the animals is flawlessly performed. The additional technical wizardry used for the scenes in the lifeboat absolutely raises the bar and redefines the concept of stage inventiveness.
As the animals proceed to prey on one another, Pi struggles to survive until he and the tiger (mis-named “Richard Parker” due to a clerical mistake) seem to reach an impasse in the middle of the ocean.
(Photo: Mahira Kakkar (“Amma”), Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Salma Shaw, Betsy Rosen, Nikki Calonge, Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin (“Orange Juice”), and the CAST of "LIFE OF PI" now playing through January 29, 2023 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. Photo Credit Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
The staggering number of special effects in "LIFE OF PI" do not overwhelm and are not used just for show. All effects are extremely well-utilized and punctuate exactly where needed to punctuate.
The capable cast portraying Pi's immediate family include Rajesh Bose as Pi's "Father," Sathya Sridharan as "Mamaji," and Sonya Venugopal as Pi's sister, "Rani." All have wonderful chemistry as the (spoiler alert) doomed members of Pi's family.
Yet, even after members of Pi's family meet their tragic fate, they continue to "help" Pi recount his tale of endurance, heroism and personal sacrifice in order to stay alive, as do other phantoms from the recesses of Pi's mind.
The entire ensemble is vital and contribute greatly to the overall success of the show.
Again, nothing is used simply to dazzle our eyes - which "LIFE OF PI" does - there is a purpose to everything and the story, as it unfolds, keeps us riveted to the edge of our seats.
(Photo: Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge (“Richard Parker”) of "LIFE OF PI" now playing through January 29, 2023 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. Photo Credit Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Praise must be given in spades to the entire creative team:
From the puppetry and inventive movement direction by Finn Caldwell, video design by Andrzej Goulding, lighting design by Tim Lutkin, sound design by Carolyn Dowling, to the scenic and costume design by Tim Hatley - as used in combination, and with flawless execution by the ensemble, these technical elements are all simply superb.
Original music by Andrew T. Mackay almost gives the impression "LIFE OF PI" should have unfolded as a musical.
There were many moments in the first act which came to a "stop" which might easily have translated well into musical format.
However, the overall content of the story itself does not really lend itself as such, especially in the last quarter of the production which explores significantly darker areas not really conducive to musical fare.
"LIFE OF PI" must close at A.R.T. Sunday, January 29, 2023. It will begin performances at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in March of 2023.
Whether you see it here or when it ultimately hits the Broadway stage, it is highly recommended everyone experience the attack on all senses and exhilarating tale that is the "LIFE OF PI."
Approximately two hours, 15 minutes with one intermission.
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
ABOUT THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER
The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University is dedicated to expanding the boundaries of theater, always including the audience as a partner.
We focus on the research and development of groundbreaking theatrical experiences that catalyze dialogue and transformation. We believe that by engaging our hearts, minds, and bodies, theater has the power to heal and imagine collective pathways forward. We commit to advancing public health in our practice and our programming, recognizing that racism in America is a national public health crisis. Our new home in Allston will be a breathable and healthy building envisioned as a town hall for the twenty-first century. Inspired by the model of a teaching hospital, the building will be a vibrant center for research, experiential pedagogy, and performance. We build community with our audiences, artists, students, staff, and neighbors across Greater Boston, embracing theater’s power to cultivate the full breadth and beauty of our shared humanity. We affirm and celebrate a multitude of perspectives and experiences that reflect the diversity of our country and world. We are dedicated to making a welcoming and accessible space for people of any identity, background, or ability.
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