If you've ever read Yann Martel's best-selling novel “Life of Pi” — or seen Ang Lee's trippy, CGI-drenched Academy Award-winning film — you know the tale is filled with fantastical creatures. It's about Pi, a teenager from India, who recounts being stranded on a lifeboat with animals from his family's zoo. Now, a menagerie of puppets star in this wild story's stage adaptation at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and a small army of artists is bringing them to life for the play's U.S. premiere.
Up close, you can see how these creations are more complicated than Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy. And they're a lot bigger. On a December morning, “Life of Pi” co-puppet designer and movement director Finn Caldwell introduced me to the mother orangutan and explained how she works.
“She's life-size — so she's almost five foot tall when she's stood up,” he said with the primate sitting by his side, “which means she's quite a lot to manage.”
Her name is Orange Juice — OJ for short — and it takes three coordinated people to manipulate the gangly orangutan's head, torso and limbs. This type of puppetry is inspired by a traditional Japanese form known as Bunraku. “We're not using strings or mechanical things, there are no motors in her, it's all hands-on,” Caldwell said.
Onstage, six hands hold various body parts to animate OJ's bright orange figure. She's highly stylized, like a sculpture, but also engineered with handles, internal rods and bungee cords that mimic ligaments.
“And being an orangutan leaping from tree to tree, she really needs that flexibility to allow her to really do the things she does,” Caldwell said, “to be able to jump and leap.” In action, OJ's legs and hands become extensions of the puppeteers'.
“I can touch your face with the same gentility and expressiveness that I can with a human hand,” he explained. “So I can get really detailed, beautiful and emotional movement out of her.”
A team of eight puppeteers lift, crouch, glide and trot other large zoo animals to life. There are goats, zebras, vicious hyenas — and the beast Pi spends months with on a small boat at sea. The teen's fellow castaway and frenemy is a deadly Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
“On this show, the big need is the tiger has to be really scary,” Caldwell said. “Can we make it fast enough to be really frightening to this boy and to the audience?”
That’s puppeteer Fred Davis’ job.
“I think it's very easy with puppetry to make it cuddly and friendly and almost Disney-fied,” he said. “The key to a character like Richard Parker is to play the reality of the danger of that animal as much as you can.”
Davis has been doing that since this production's 2019 debut in the U.K. and he was instrumental in developing Richard Parker's character. Davis is alternating performances at the A.R.T. with other puppeteers because the tiger role is incredibly exhausting. He did that in London's West End as well, and the seven performers behind the tiger collectively earned an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
At the A.R.T., Davis is playing Richard Parker's head as part of the highly choreographed trio.
“I'm not going to lie, it's hard to get that connection with those two other people to make one large creature,” Davis said. “So we did lots of research on how exactly they move.”
In addition to watching videos of tigers in action, Davis also studied how they sound. That's because the puppeteers working the animals' heads also deliver something like lines. Davis took a breath during our interview, then grunted out a pretty convincing growl. But human vocal cords and chest cavities don't deliver the menacing resonance of a real tiger's roars. During performance, sound designer Caroline Downing's team is on high alert for cues to boost Davis' vocalizations.
“We can play with things like pitch shifting and effects and reverb to kind of enhance that,” she said. “We're in partnership in that process.”
For the Cambridge premiere, Downing expanded the show's animal sound repertoire by recording the puppeteers' vocalizations and layering them to create the zoo's audio landscape.
“Most of the major animals in the show make sounds,” Caldwell said. “And that's a big part of the way that we let the audiences into what's happening onstage, into the puppetry to some degree — and we're all listening to each other.”
Tim Lutkin's lighting, Andrzej Goulding's video projections and music by Andrew T. Mackay also drive the drama and emotion. The film composer sat in rehearsals as he wrote the score. “Life of Pi” is Mackay's first play, and he took a cinematic approach to crafting the music.
“That element of movement — where you've got a marriage of sound, music and the puppetry — was really exciting because I hadn't experienced that,” he recalled. “I've written for humans, not for animals, not even on the wildlife shows or anything like that before, and this was something otherworldly, certainly when you see Richard Parker for the first time.”
It's important to note the puppeteers are in full view throughout the performance. That's intentional, and for designer and movement director Caldwell, it's also part of the magic.
“And it's real magic, as opposed to illusion. We're not trying to trick you, or trying to convince you that this thing is alive,” he said. “Actually, what we're saying is, 'look, we're doing this thing, and the skill that you're seeing performed in front of you makes you join in this game and think that this thing is alive.'”
But there is a risk that these dazzling puppets could overshadow the human characters onstage. Puppeteer Fred Davis said it's a delicate dance. “We have to be very well-behaved, otherwise the actors could, very rightly, get quite annoyed that we're just stealing the scene.”
Richard Parker's roars — and some purrs (technically those contented sounds are referred to as prustens or chuffing) — will be onstage at the A.R.T. through Jan. 29. Then, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti's adaptation heads to Broadway in March.
This segment aired on December 15, 2022.