Pi is stranded in the ocean in Broadway's Life of Pi
Hiran Abeysekera, left, and Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink, and Andrew Wilson in ‘Life of Pi.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The Rundown

The Lion King may no longer rule Broadway’s puppet kingdom with the arrival of Life of Pi, Lolita Chakrabarti’s visually stunning adaptation of the best-selling novel by Yann Martel.

Originating at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and then transferring to London’s West End where it won five Olivier Awards, including Best New Play, Life of Pi manages to accomplish the magical by entertaining audiences of all ages with innovative stage design and a more complex narrative about surviving trauma, which is all too familiar for the queer community.

No Tea, No Shade

A scene in an Indian market in Broadway's Life of Pi
The company of Broadway’s ‘Life of Pi.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Pi (a charismatic Hiram Abeysekera reprising his Olivier-winning performance) is a precocious teenager whose family flees Pondicherry, India, in the mid-70s due to increased violence. They flee the country aboard a Japanese cargo ship, with many of the family’s zoo animals in tow, but when rough waters capsize the vessel, Pi finds himself the sole human survivor on a lifeboat, along with a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and Bengal tiger.

But things may not be exactly as they seem as Pi recalls his hundreds of days at sea to Canadian consulate and Japanese Ministry of Transport representatives from a Mexican hospital where he is recovering.

It is this ever-shifting illusion of reality that captivates Pi’s story of endurance that provoked tears of joy and sorrow from the audience member sitting next to me, who exclaimed during intermission, “I’m happy it’s so Indian,” also commending the pronunciation of the Hindu prayer (puja).

Broadway sees far too little Indian representation — 2004’s Bombay Dreams (284 performances) and the 2009 production of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (108 performances) are among the few, while a reworked revival of The Secret Garden with more authentic representation hopes to transfer to New York after a run at LA’s Ahmanson Theatre. This gift of diversity not only benefits those who identify with the characters onstage but those, like myself, less familiar with Indian culture and traditions.

Life of Pi is also a celebration of craftsmanship and collaboration. Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppet designs, expertly manipulated by an ensemble who hopefully have an on-staff chiropractor, come to life with mesmerizing movement. Combined with Andrezej Goulding’s video design (consider sitting in the mezzanine for the full experience) and Tim Lutkin’s lighting, the production is a sensory explosion.

Of course, none of that matters if the audience fails to jump on board with Pi’s extraordinary journey. As Pi, Abeysekera carries the bulk of the production’s weight with whimsical nonchalance, holding onto a sense of wonder even in the darkest of times.

Let’s Have a Moment

Pi battles a tiger in Life of Pi on Broadway
Hiran Abeysekera in ‘Life of Pi.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Tim Hatley’s constantly shifting scenic design takes many forms, from Pi’s home to the open sea. But it is a bleak hospital room, recounting the ship’s sinking and sudden loss of his family that Life of Pi finds its roots and resonates far beyond its time and place.

“Fear crept into my mind — ‘no one will think of you Pi. You’re not important.’ I tried to silence her,” recalls Pi. “She filled my body with terror — my lungs, guts, tongue, ears, muscles, knees, heart pounding, sphincter releasing. Everything surrenders to Fear.”

In a world at war and a country entrenched in gun violence and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to hear Pi’s words and not find the parallel. But then he offers the simplest solution: “Fear poisons everything, so you must shine a light of language on it because if you don’t, it becomes a wordless darkness, and you will never defeat it.”

The Last Word

“I am a result of a lot of love and generosity of many,” said Abeysekera upon accepting the Olivier Award for his performance. “I would like to think of you all right now and hope you are proud of me.” Leading a new Broadway cast, the actor has crossed the sea in more ways than one.

Life of Pi is the rare Broadway experience these days that refuses to pander to its audience, instead telling a story of hope, resilience, and survival.

Life of Pi plays on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

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