Eleventh in a series of Broadway reports

NEW YORK — It’s not often I go to see a play because of a tiger. A puppet tiger. In the case of “Life of Pi,” a Bengal tiger puppet, plus a fistful of other denizens of the jungle, create a strange menagerie of animals centerstage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway through July 23.

The life-sized tiger puppet is the remarkable centerpiece and is a beast that comes to life, thanks to puppeteer Finn Caldwald, who generates the awesome and realistic movements with a team of three handlers.

 Hiran Abeysekra is Pi Pital, who faces a Bengal tiger in “Life of Pi.”

It’s a visual and memorable show you’re not likely forget, even if the trio maneuvering the fake tiger are visible. They make it alive and fearful.

But “Pi” failed to be among the Best Play nominees in the recent Tonys, impacting attendance amid a fragile element on Broadway; despite earning three technical trophies for scenic design for Tim Hatley and Andrze Goulding, lighting design for Ti mLutkin and sound design for Carolyn Downing, the victory has not equated to ticket sales. “Leopoldstad” picked up the coveted Best Play and four other prizes.

The tiger has name, Richard Drake, and is shown here lurking in “Pi.”

“Pi” is a drama based on a novel by Yann Martel, adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakbarati, recreating on stage the haps in the movie of the same name.

Until recently, Hiran Abeysekera has been portraying Pi Patel, a lad marooned on a small boat co-habitated by the jungle beast. He originated his Olivier-winning performance in London, but just departed the role on July 9.

His replacement, who jumped into the boat on July 11, will be played by Uma Paranipe, in a gender-bending switch, not that a female can’t enact the part. The change will give the show a new flavor and feeling. Paranipe has been an understudy who has, on occasion, played Pi, and she will be in the lead through the planned closure of the production. A tour in the fall of 2024 is planned, specifics not yet known.

The human cast of “Pi” shown here aboard a cargo ship.

Directed by Max Webster, “Pi” has got to seen to be believed. The adventure of Indian origins  is set in India and Mexico on land, and in the middle of the Pacific when the central tiger puppet is at sea with a human, each attempting to gain territorial rights in a round-the-clock vigil of survival. So noted and powerful is the animal, its zookeeper handlers named him Richard Parker.

The plot is thin, but the choreographic maneuvers aboard the little boat is a dance of skill and agility.

Fin Caldwell is the puppet designer and is one of the handlers of his creation.

Pi is a patient at a non-descript hospital in Mexico, as the tale begins. He was aboard a Japanese cargo ship sailing from Pondicherry, India and destined for Canada, but it sank at sea; all passengers, including Pi’s parents, perished in the seas.

Because Pi survived a 227-day ordeal at sea, along with Richard Parker, hospital officials question him about what happened, with disbelief.

Investigators Okamoto (Daisuke Tsuji) from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, and Lulu Chen (Kirstin Louie) representing the Canadian Embassy, grill him intensely and cannot believe what seems to be a bad dream.

So Pi offers them two versions, to give them a choice. A real, perhaps exaggerated tale, and one that is sanitized, without the animal.

There are shifting moments; the hospital switches to the boat, then back to the room. Since the hospital bed and the boat appear to be similar in size, the back-and-forth switches can blur the reality.

The puppetry is what’s extremely incredible, with vigorous moves with the Pi character, in back-and-forth, encircling jerks like wrestlers trying to outdo the other in the ring. The tiger also roars, for an extra dose of stamina, and the 24/7 match includes brief moments of rest – and site changes.

Even without the presence of a watery ocean, the imagination fills in the blanks and the see-sawing territorial quest seems awfully real. Themes of co-habitation are suggested, rather than a survival-of-the-fittest tone, so the beast can be a buddy, and vice versa. Equality issues come into mind and no one is the enemy.

If ever you have a chance to view “Pi,” do so; you’ll have tiger in your tank, and you’ll be roaring with delight. …

And that’s Show Biz. …

‘Life of Pi’

“Life of Pi’ is a drama based on a novel by Yann Martel and adapted by Lolita Chakbararti, inspired by the movie by the same name. Directed by Max Webster, with puppetry and movement by Finn Caldwell, puppetry design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, scenic and costume design by Carolyn Downing, lighting design by Tim Lutkin, sound design by Carolyn Downing, video design and animation by Andrezej Golding, music by Andrew T. Mackay and dramaturg by Jack Bradley

Playing at the Gerald Schoenberg Theatre on Broadway, through July 23

Puppets have become visibly plentiful

Richard Parker, the so-named life-sized Bengal tiger puppet in the Broadway drama, “Life of Pi,” is an astonishing cast member earning hurrahs from the audience.

It takes three handlers to make the tiger growl and prowl, on a tiny boat that ultimately is the jaw-dropping center of attraction.

But puppets have been popping up in Broadway shows quite often, though not enough yet to indicate a trend. Pictured here: Poobaa from “Lion King,” Milky Way from “Into the Woods,” and the “War Horse” horse.

In New York’s last revival of “Into the Woods,” one of the whimsical and charming cast characters was Milky White, a puppet with a single handler. It could moo, prance, and mourn; it was a bit  skeletal, not meaty,  in appearance.  In some stagings, of the Stephen Sondheim musical of fractured fairy tale characters, Milky White also has been portrayed by an actor inside a cow costume.

Perhaps the earlier drama, “War Horse,” a World War I tale about a lad and his horse separated because of the battle, legitimized the employment of puppets. This one was a  life-size horse puppet which the boy, Joey, could ride. Five handlers – visible to the audience — were responsible in helping the horse trot and gallop.

Of course, “The Lion King” has a lion’s share of puppets – typified by cartoonish characters like Timon and Pumbaa – but including hand-held birds and prancing animals on the plains, and humans with headgear depicting the lion kingdom.

“Avenue Q,” notably, featured a roster of kiddy-like critters, many hand-puppets manipulated by actors. And Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” can be considered a puppet, too…

And that’s Show Biz. …


  1. Hi Wayne,

    Sounds like you really enjoyed this show(PI). Were you able to take pictures during these shows? I was really surprised.
    Have fun and keep cool and don’t get caught in the rain

    Aloha Dolores

  2. It’s illegal to shoot pix at all shows; nowadays, theatres allow iPhone shots during the curtain call/finale. But you can’t sneak a pic while a show is going on.

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