In ART’s ‘Life of Pi,’ a dramatic tale of teen vs. tiger

Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge (“Richard Parker”) in “Life of Pi.” Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

CAMBRIDGE – The art of what is possible in live theater has changed rapidly in the past generation.

Thanks to technology and the imaginations of theater artists, works of art can be transferred to the stage that were unthinkable in the past.

In the American Repertory Theater’s North American premiere production of “The Life of Pi,” based on the novel by Yann Martel as adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, the production values – light, sound, set, costumes, world-class puppetry and vivid, thrilling projections —  have been raised to breathtaking heights.

The result, performed at the Loeb Drama Center through Jan. 29, is a spectacular tale of survival, resilience, and the eventual triumph of the human spirit and the will to live, a work that won the 2022 Olivier Award in London as Best Play. “Life of Pi” is scheduled to open on Broadway in March.

The ART is no stranger to bringing broad, sweeping works to the stage. In 2019, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of “Moby Dick” also found ingenious ways to present the tale, but it was not quite as literal a production in its presentation as this one.

“Life of Pi” opens in a hospital ward in Mexico in 1978, where teenager Pi Patel (Adi Dixit) is emotionally and physically spent.  The teenager has taken refuge under a hospital bed after his harrowing adventure – the only survivor of a sunk cargo boat, spending 227 days on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat, almost all of them with a Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker as his only companion.  

A representative from a Japanese transportation agency (Daisuke Tsuji) investigating the sinking of the cargo ship and an official from the Canadian consulate (Kirsten Louie) there to protect Pi’s interests try to coax him out so he can tell them the story of his journey.

Brian Thomas Abraham (“Cook”), Rajesh Bose (“Father”), Sonya Venugopal (“Rani”), Mahira Kakkar (“Amma”), Adi Dixit (“Pi”) in “Life of Pi.” Photo Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

He eventually emerges and begins his story two years before In India, where the Patel family has a private zoo. Piscine Patel, nicknamed Pi, is an avid swimmer who was named after a swimming pool in Paris although neither his father ( Rajesh Bose) or mother (Sathya Sridharan) like the water.

Raised a Hindu and a vegetarian, Pi dabbles in both Islam and Catholicism, which irritates his sister Rani (Sonya Venugopal).

When political conditions deteriorate in India in1976, his father makes the difficult decision that the family – and the remaining animals – will emigrate to Canada. But the cargo freighter is swamped in a storm, and Pi is the sole survivor – for a while.

The puppetry is simply spectacular. Finn Caldwell created the puppets and directs their movement, with the puppetry designs by Caldwell and Nick Barnes.  “Life of Pi” goes nowhere without the work of puppeteers  Nikki Calonge, Fred Davis, Rowan Magee, Jonathan David Martin, Betsy Rosen, Celia Mei Ruben, Scarlet Wilderink and Andrew Wilson.

The faux menagerie Caldwell and Barnes have created is amazingly realistic, with animals that move swiftly and surely and are as terrifying as the real thing. It starts with the Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, so named when the paperwork that transferred the tiger to the family-owned zoo got mixed up and the hunter and tiger’s names were transposed.  It is a cat to its core, growling, stalking and eventually devouring its prey.

The other creations include a zebra, an orangutan named Orange Juice, and a lethal hyena. They all show up at some point in Pi’s lifeboat, but, except for Richard Parker, not for long. Then there are the fish and the large sea turtle that arrives at a fraught moment for both Pi and the tiger.

With all of its moving parts, “Life of Pi” is a full-fledged technical nightmare. Director Max Webster is charged with the daunting task of keeping it together, and, at a recent performance, problems caused a short break in the performance, which did stall the piece’s momentum for a short time.

The projections designed by Andrzej Goulding, the set and costume designs by Tim Hatley, the lighting by Tim Lutkin, Carol Downing’s sound design and the dramatic original music composed by Andrew T. Mackay all work in concert as the tension is ratcheted up in the continuous standoff between the teen and the tiger in Act II.

This is not a show for young children. Acts of violence are dramatically and graphically rendered, and there are other adult themes and situations that are part of the storyline.

The scenes between Pi and Richard Parker trying to co-exist on the boat are harrowing, and – at times – simply terrifying.

As Pi struggles to stay sane and alive, dead family members appear on cue to offer advice, and there is some much-needed humor in Act II in the form of an imagined appearance by Admiral Jackson (Avery Glymph), a naval officer whose books on surviving at sea prove invaluable to Pi’s eventual survival.

At one point, after 10 days without water, Richard Parker appears to be speaking to him.

Both Chakrabarti, the adaptor, and director Webster know that the off-ocean scenes will suffer in comparison to those on the water but will also serve as a release of sorts to allow the audience to catch its breath, as when the Japanese official interrupts Pi, asking him to finish his story so he can finish his report on the tragedy.

In a role that makes huge demands both mentally and physically on him, Dixit makes for a sturdy, steadfast Pi, staring down the relentless Richard Parker, finding strength he never knew he had and recalling his father’s warnings about wild animals – and especially the Bengal Tiger.

But with survival at stake, there may be one animal on earth who can at least outwit him.

The American Repertory Theater production of “Life of Pi.” Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, based on the novel by Yann Martel. Directed by Max Webster. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan. 29.