The finest puppet show on Broadway is undoubtedly Life of Pi (at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through September 3), following the 2001 Yann Martel novel and the 2012 Ang Lee film. Ah, but it’s not just a puppet show! cry its supporters. It’s about religion. True. It’s a play that argues that religion is more or less a puppet show.
As with the novel and the movie, everything turns on the twist ending, which possibly undoes everything we have just witnessed. A hit in the West End directed by Max Webster and adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, the play is almost entirely a flashback told by the sole survivor of a ship that foundered after leaving India in 1977. Piscine Patel, nicknamed Pi (Hiran Abeysekera), eventually found dry land in Mexico and as the play begins is being interrogated by Japanese officials investigating for insurance purposes. Pi, who first appears to the audience crawling out from under his hospital bed, is beset by successive rounds of nervous hysteria as he tells his tale of surviving for months at sea on a small boat whose only other living occupant was a tiger.
Pi grew up on the grounds of a zoo owned and maintained by his father (Avery Glymph), who, after political unrest and rioting endangered his livelihood, decided to take the family to Canada on a cargo ship that would also house some of the exotic animals. A storm destroyed the ship and killed everyone else aboard, but Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a hyena, a badly wounded zebra, and a tiger. The law of the jungle applies, and soon only the tiger and Pi (a youth in his late teens or early adulthood) coexist.
The play’s value lies mostly in the marvelous staging, which makes use of techniques that would not have been out of place in a Victorian theater. That our digital age can still find means to delight audiences with old-fashioned illusions delivered by live performers is cheering, and Life of Pi is a very child-friendly play. In today’s cultural environment, operating at the intellectual level of an eleven-year-old is not only no hindrance, it’s probably the most strategic bet one can make for ensuring profitability. The life-sized puppet animals are thrillingly operated by three-person teams as the lighting and sound crew create storms via projections and sound effects. So skilled are the puppet masters that, at the Olivier Awards in London, the seven performers manipulating the tiger shared the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Pi’s tales of floating alongside the boat on a piece of flotsam, learning to survive by catching rainwater in umbrella-like objects and turtles from the sea, and finally summoning the courage to move back onto the lifeboat and establish dominance over the tiger, give the play plenty of dramatic valence. A particularly engaging sequence is the one in which Pi, delirious from lack of nutrition, imagines himself having conversations with the tiger (voiced by the actor who plays the ship’s French cook, Brian Thomas Abraham).
As an adventure, Life of Pi is top-drawer stuff. But what is the point of it all? Early in the evening, Pi goes off on a tangent explaining his fascination with religion. Which one? It doesn’t much matter. He attends church, mosque, and Hindu temple. He is a close cousin to those unbearable young women who say, “I don’t adhere to any particular religion, but I’m a very spiritual person, you know?” And to the extent the play is aimed at adults, it is for those spiritual-but-not-religious folks, people who free-float in the sea of belief grasping onto whatever is nearest at hand but refusing anything like responsibility or duty or obedience to a set of precepts. Martel’s novel was a sensation, selling by some accounts ten million copies around the world, and it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s a very contemporary book.
If you’re not familiar with the story, skip the spoilers ahead, but after more than twenty years it seems permissible to discuss the surprise ending, which has remained consistent across the various media in which Life of Pi has been presented.
The twist is that all we have seen, all that Pi has told us, is (we think) a fantasy. When pressed by investigators, he offers a different, much more plausible story in which he was aboard a boat with three other humans. This story is far less uplifting and far more grim, involving as it does cannibalism and murder. Pi then invites us to think of the more colorful, fable-like story as the equivalent of religion. The Japanese investigators close the case, hinting that they believe the fable, although this seems merely to be indulging Pi in the interest of granting him some closure and psychic healing. In the human-centered version of the story (one of the characters points out), each person has a clear analogue as one of the animals in the other version—positioning Pi himself as the tiger. Aboard the boat, then, he simply had to master the art of taming himself.
What Martel is announcing is that religion is merely a just-so story, that we are drawn to it because it offers entertaining solutions to our most troubling problems. Billions of believers across the world vehemently object, but Martel’s view is certainly the modish one in much of the West, where sophisticated elites almost pride themselves on their lack of interest in understanding the unwashed masses and their grubby but stubborn beliefs. Did I say the play was appealing to children? It’s positively childish.