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The A.R.T.'s 'Life of Pi' is a wondrous spectacle

Adi Dixit and the cast of "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Adi Dixit and the cast of "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Stories can serve many functions: affirm or disprove theories through factual accounts, assuage fears, entertain, inspire hope and more. Piscine — Pi for short — a teenager from Pondicherry, India, whose family owns a zoo, tells an incredible story of loss, perseverance and faith that makes one consider what truly matters.

Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel "Life of Pi," already adapted for the screen, is now getting its North American premiere. Produced by the American Repertory Theater, the play is showing at the Loeb Drama Center through Jan. 29 before moving on to Broadway. Adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, it has already won five Olivier Awards, including Best Play, in England.

At the show's start, the audience meets Pi's mother, father, sister and several animals bounding across the stage. Tall trees peek through windows as butterflies flutter and zebras, orangutans and hyenas growl and gnash their teeth. There's even a Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, that rules the place. As those who’ve read the book or seen the movie know, that tiger will take on a central role in the play.

Adi Dixit and the cast of "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Adi Dixit and the cast of "Life of Pi" at the American Repertory Theater. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Pi's life is rich. Full of the love of his family, caring for the animals and the colorful sights and sounds of the bustling market where red, orange, and white rugs, saris, umbrellas, beverages and more are sold. He spends time there talking and practicing with local Muslim, Christian and Hindu clergy. There's an openness to his approach toward faith and even the lack thereof that surprises each of the clergy members.

However, it's the late 1970s and Indira Gandhi’s imposed Emergency sparks violence and unrest. Animals are attacked and the family feels the impending danger. So, the four flee aboard a cargo ship to Canada with its zoo residents in tow. It's on this journey at sea that Pi's life takes a dramatic turn.

Fantastic fables can be challenging to realize onstage. But Max Webster's expert direction, the stunning work of puppeteers (design and movement) Finn Caldwell, Nick Barnes, Scarlet Wilderink and scenic designer Tim Hatley make Pi's adventure a wondrous spectacle. The full height and width of the stage (and even below) are used to explore the teenager's hardship — with a boat that emerges from underground — and spark wonder. Tim Lutkin's lighting and Andrzej Goulding's video mimic movement on the stage's floor and show passing storm clouds.

Sound designer Carolyn Downing's crashing waves and wind paint a harrowing oceanic ordeal. Lights blink, animals escape their holds and items scatter in the water when the ship, faced with a significant storm, sinks. Pi must do everything he can to survive in the company of the Bengal tiger — which becomes a symbol of ferocity and tenacity — a zebra and a hyena. Another memorable moment was a night on the water with handheld constellations and stars in the sky above Pi's boat and over the audience.

Celia Mei Ruben, Nikki Calonge and Rowan Magee as Black and White; Adi Dixit as Pi; Sathya Sridharan as Mamaji; and the company of "Life of Pi." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
Celia Mei Ruben, Nikki Calonge and Rowan Magee as Black and White; Adi Dixit as Pi; Sathya Sridharan as Mamaji; and the company of "Life of Pi." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The action flashes back and forth between present-day Mexico in a hospital ward and Pi's nightmarish time at sea where he learns to rely on lessons from his father, ethereal visits from his deceased mom and the wisdom gleaned from various religions to live. The unbelievable tale forces jaded viewers to suspend belief and immerse themselves in imagination.

But Pi's wild re-telling feels like it's more about faith, whether it's in God or one's ability to never give up even when faced with the dark possibility of death. And there is quite a bit of darkness.

Fair warning, this fable isn't fit for young children. Pi faces real danger and violence and some of the scenes can be graphic.

Pi's moral-centric recollection is heavy on idealism and altruism, but his experience also raises some questions. How much of it is true? Does it matter? What can be learned from the narrative?

Pi’s account doesn’t offer up answers, rather it leaves readers to consider the power of narrative. And maybe, the purpose storytelling serves is just as important if not more so, than the story itself.


The American Repertory Theater’s production of “Life of Pi” runs through Jan. 29 at the Loeb Drama Center.

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Jacquinn Sinclair Performing Arts Writer
Jacquinn Sinclair is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Performer Magazine, The Philadelphia Tribune and Exhale Magazine.

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