Fear Is the Mind Killer: “Life of Pi” at A.R.T.

Presented by American Repertory Theater
Based on the novel by Yann Martel
Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti
Directed by Max Webster
Scenic and Costume Design by Tim Hatley
Puppetry and Movement Direction by Finn Caldwell
Puppet Design by Nick Barnes by Finn Caldwell
Video Design by Andrzej Goulding
Lighting Design by Tim Lutkin
Sound Design by Carolyn Downing
Original Music by Andrew T. Mackay
Dramaturgy by Jack Bradley

Dec. 6, 2022 – Jan. 29, 2023
Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

“I must not fear. 
Fear is the mind-killer. 
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. 
I will face my fear. 
I will permit it to pass over me and through me. 
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. 
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. 
Only I will remain.”
– The Bene Gesserit’s “Litany Against Fear” from Dune by Frank Herbert

Critique by Kitty Drexel

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Life of Pi at American Repertory is for fans who loved the novel and the movie. It’s for people who loved the movie, too. Life of Pi may also appeal to people who don’t regularly attend the theatre but enjoy a spectacle epic. 

Life of Pi the stage adaptation is not for children. The movie was rated PG, but the theatrical version is PG-13 at least. Puppets are no longer an indication of child-friendly content. Life of Pi’s puppets can be graceful and inspire wonder – yes – they also rightly invoke fear. 

The stage version contains graphic violence: character death, animal death, depiction of gore, and depiction of animal mutilation on stage. The violence in this show is necessary for its storytelling. Please consider your needs and the needs of your companions when buying a ticket.

Inviting a live Bengal tiger into a theater would be an insurance agent’s nightmare. This show achieves the same disturbing effects as a live predator with the skillful acting of puppeteers in tiger, hyena, orangutan, and zebra body puppets.

One can forget that there’s a human inside the body puppet. These consummate artists aren’t superseding nature; they are returning to it. If Life of Pi reminds us of nothing else, it is that humans are the most dangerous animals.

Watching the puppeteers work is a workshop in expressive movement. With puppetry and movement direction by Finn Caldwell, the puppeteers prowl, chase, hunt, and maim like animals in a documentary. They gambol as flying fishes and flit as gentle butterflies. The puppeteers say more with their bodies than the speaking cast does with their voices and bodies combined.

Video Design by Andrzej Goulding, lighting design by Tim Lutkin, and sound design by Carolyn Downing are collaborative works of genius. To see them all working together is to experience stage magic of a whole new caliber.

Ultimately, Life of Pi the stage adaptation, while shocking and sometimes disturbing, does not have anything else to say in addition to the movie and the novel. The novel was better than the visually brilliant but inadequately written 2012 film by Ang Lee, yet the film had new commentary to make on the original story. Ang Lee and the scriptwriters had more to say about Pi Patel, humanity’s relationship to “God,” storytelling as survival, and our murderous place in the Earth’s dying ecosystem.

Chakrabarti, Webster, Goulding, Downing, and Mackay aren’t expanding on the source material but they aren’t retconning the film either. They are repeating the novel for audiences who want the novel exactly: no extra philosophical thrills, no extra spiritual frills.

It’s like a Tilt-A-Whirl. Li of Pi will scramble your senses; get you all riled up; you’ll reminisce with your friends, then you’ll move on to the next bit of entertainment. It can be overwhelming, but it’s nothing some deep breaths can’t fix.

Life of Pi was staged in the West End in London and will be traveling to Broadway after its stint here in Cambridge. There is a lot of mind-expanding, world-building, and, best of all, local puppetry to be found right here in New England!

Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline has puppet shows for children of all ages (and was one of the first theatres to reopen after the quarantine). Its Puppets at Night series shows geared toward adults and teens. Puppet Showplace also has virtual offerings. Its prices are always reasonable.

Sandglass Theater works out of a barn in Putney, VT. Its workshops and entertainment are committed to social justice missions. Its puppeteers will be participating in the Baltimore Crankie Festival in Baltimore, MD in January but will return to performing in VT in February.

There are even more wonders of puppetry to be found at https://www.puppeteers.org/northeast. Go and get it!

Life of Pi is a story about an Indian boy written by a white man. The stage adaptation was directed and produced by two other white men in England, the birthplace of colonization, before coming to Cambridge. There are a lot of Brown and Black people of color involved in this show but not at its leadership. There should be more BIPOC at every stage of creation and production. In 2023, let’s devote more arts funding towards BIPOC art written by and for the BIPOC community.

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