'LIFE OF PI:' PUPPETS OF EXCELLENCE
Is excellence all? Sometimes in the theater, that is the question. The majestically designed set that overwhelms the production. The stunningly elaborate choreography that dances the damn show to death, leaving everyone exhausted and ready to go home.
(No, this is not about Dancin.’ I’m not even going there.)
These grumbles are actually brought to you courtesy of Life of Pi, a play where the puppetry is utterly excellent. But are puppets of excellence enough?
Not for me, I discovered. Puppets on the scale of Pi’s puppets are wonders to behold, nearly life-size beasts — hyena, zebra, orangutan, sea turtle and of, course, famously, a Royal Bengal Tiger named Mr. Parker.
If you read the book (by Yann Martel) and/or saw the movie (by Ang Lee) you know that Life of Pi is one of those parables, like Kipling’s The Jungle Book, where the human protagonist (in both cases a young boy) talks to the animals. Both kids are victims of trauma. Where The Jungle Book’s animals mostly help heal their human by literally rearing him (though one or two, including a different tiger, do try to eat him), in Life of Pi they are embodiments of, and a refuge from, human trauma (don’t want to give everything away here). Some of the animals do try to eat Pi, but all are him.
A poetic, no doubt therapeutic, trauma management mechanism.
As a reader, I found imagining these creatures lent mystery and beauty to them. Puppetizing them for the theater conversely de-mystified Pi’s animals for me. I became engrossed in the athleticism of the puppeteers manipulating these figures, their prodigious grace and muscle power, and kind of forgot about the story. It didn’t help that the essential element that makes Life of Pi compelling as a book: Pi’s narration, has understandably been parceled out to the play’s characters as dialogue. This deprives us of Pi’s metaphysical spirit, his questioning, philosophical mind, even in the face of unspeakable horror. Without it, I felt I was just watching The Lion King without music. The vivid theatrics are inventive. The lighting is thrilling. The puppets shimmy and shake (and roar). The writing underlines everything rather obviously, as does the acting — though Hiran Abeysekera as Pi is terrifically agile. Not the worst way to pass an evening in the theater. But nevertheless lacking.
Clearly, an awful lot of people think otherwise; Life of Pi, appears to be selling well (it is a visual spectacle and a feast for tourists of any language), and has been nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play. Puppet-wise, it is excellent. More than that I cannot say.