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A look inside the acclaimed new theater production of 'Life of Pi'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: The play "Life of Pi" opened this winter at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

You may know the story from the bestselling book or the Oscar-winning film, but the creative team behind the play wants you to reconsider what you thought you knew.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH Boston takes a look as the play heads to Broadway this spring as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: "Life of Pi," the new Broadway-bound play at the American Repertory Theater, is a tale rippling with tests of survival, will and belief, for the audience too, because we are pressed to believe we're watching Pi, a 17-year-old boy, adrift in the ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The play is an adaptation of Canadian author Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel, which also became the inspiration for the 2012 Ang Lee film.

Actor: Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now. My fear of him keeps me alert. Tending to his needs gives my life purpose.

Jared Bowen: It centers on Pi, who, along with orangutan, hyena, zebra, and tiger, is cast into the sea after a ship carrying his family and their menagerie of zoo animals sinks.

It's Pi telling his story, or rather, stories, that he either survived with the animals in tow, or the animals were merely metaphorical stand-ins for his family and shipmates.

Lolita Chakrabarti, Playwright: I asked Yann Martel, the first thing I asked him when I met him was, you need to tell me what really happened, because I need to know truth.

Jared Bowen: But when playwright Lolita Chakrabarti met with the author as she launched into the project, his only advice, don't lose the animals.

Lolita Chakrabarti: So, he left me with that dilemma because it made me fulfill what he set up in the book, which is the ambiguity.

So, it is the animals who are on the boat, and yet there's an alternate story. And he sets up that we follow what we know, so we like to rely on what we know and what we can prove. So it's up to you when you come and watch the play which one you believe.

Jared Bowen: Chakrabarti says she believes that ambiguity also goes to the heart of who Pi is, that his storytelling can be construed as a mechanism for exceptional resilience.

Lolita Chakrabarti: I think maybe we never know who we are until we're tested. And out of great suffering can come wonder.

And I think Pi, in the extraordinary difficulty that he engages through the story, I can only explain it as enlightenment.

Max Webster, Director: It's always a space to grieve, but also really an optimistic space to reflect on what we can bring forwards.

Well, actually, post-pandemic, I feel that the story has become even more relevant.

Jared Bowen: Max Webster directed "Life of Pi" to a slew of awards, including best new play in London's West End.

We met as he rehearsed a new ensemble for the production's U.S. debut. Much of Webster's cast are puppeteers, animating the animals alongside Pi. It's a concept that plays directly into the work's themes of imagination.

Max Webster: We really know that the pieces of wood over there are not a zebra, but it's kind of like a game you invite the audience up to play with you, just as a child plays, in a way.

Jared Bowen: Here, though, it's a much darker play.

Max Webster: It's not a sort of fantasy story in which the animals are cute. So these are -- this is nature, red and tooth and claw, rather than a sort of anthropomorphized animals, animals in which you kind of want to hug from.

Jared Bowen: The team, led by puppetry and movement director Finn Caldwell, has spent considerable time studying animal anatomy, mannerisms and behavior to make the puppets as real and as brutal as possible, like in this scene where the wounded zebra is attacked by a hyena.

Finn Caldwell, Puppetry and Movement Director: We strip it right back to the beginnings and say, OK, this is what we think a zebra would do if it's very distressed. This is what we think zebra would do if its leg was broken and it's trying to stand up.

Bit by bit, build the detail up so that, in the end, we have a convincing picture.

Jared Bowen: A former actor and one of the puppetry minds behind the Tony-winning play "War Horse," Caldwell says the magic comes in the symbiosis between performer and puppet.

Finn Caldwell: The tiger was angry. I want the tiger to be experiencing the anger, but the puppeteer to experience that anger as well. They're not experiencing the hunger for the puppet, but they are experiencing what they -- what is happening in the puppet.

The tiger roars, and I roar as well.

Jared Bowen: And it must all happen together. Many of the animals are portrayed by multiple puppeteers. And, in London England's theater awards, the Oliviers, cited all seven performers playing the tiger with the best supporting actor award, an historic first.

The connective tissue among puppeteers, says Caldwell, is breath.

Finn Caldwell: And we start with breath to give you emotion.

So, I can be visibly upset just from the way that I'm breathing. And so, again, we use that breath to let the audience understand the emotional state. The great thing about breath is that, ultimately, it allows the puppeteers to communicate with each other without having to talk.

So, if something over there is very frightening, and we're connected together operating a puppet, by the way we breathe in response to that, we can tell what we might be doing next. And so I have taken on the journey of being surprised, to being calm, without having planned it.

Jared Bowen: It's the breath of "Life of Pi" that in this story of struggle and perseverance frequently leaves the audience struggling to catch its own.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.

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