Hiran Abeysekera as Pi in the Broadway adaptation of The Life of Pi, and Doctor Who fans will recognize Tom Baker in his turn as Puddleglum.
For reasons that will be obvious to anyone who knows both of us, I generally let Michele pick which shows we’re going to see when we’re visiting New York. We managed to fit two Broadway shows into our last trip. The first was Sweeney Todd, which was absolutely brilliant, so brilliant it won me over—it was never a favorite of mine. Annaleigh Ashford just absolutely killed it (pun fully intended) as Mrs. Lovett, so much so I think she did better than either Helena Bonham Carter or (Lord, forgive me my blasphemy) Angela Lansbury in the role.
Michele’s second pick was the Broadway production of The Life of Pi. I had some vague knowledge of the novel by Canadian author Yann Martel, though I’d never read it or seen the movie adaptation. Fair warning, I will be spoiling this play which would also likely spoil the book and movie. Also—I’m going to talk about faith and religion. If that doesn’t interest you, or you find frank admission of religious faith off-putting, well, this essay might not be for you.
The Life of Pi is presented as a straight play, that is to say, it isn’t a musical. The characters don’t sing and dance, although the choreography of the actors, puppets and sets involved is no less intricate and impressive for that lack.
We join Piscene Molitor Patel, Pi for short, in a hospital room in Mexico, convalescing from an ordeal at sea. Mr. Okamoto, an investigator from a Japanese shipping conglomerate and Ms. Chen, an official from the Canadian consulate, come to visit Pi. Chen is operating out of interest in Pi’s well-being as an immigrant to Canada and Okamoto is on a mission to find out why the ship sank.
Hiran Abeysekera as Pi, Daisuker Tsuji as Mr. Okamoto, and Kirstin Louie as Ms. Chen.
The script and lead actor, Hiran Abeysekera, establishes Pi’s humor, charm, curiosity, and oddity in equal measure. Pi challenges both of his visitors’ beliefs and when Okamoto announces his atheism, Pi says he can respect that despite his own spirituality, since at least Okamoto has taken a firm position rather than settling into perpetual uncertainty like an agnostic. Pi is funny, magnetic, charming, and thought-provoking. And a good thing he is, because we’re going to be alone with him and a bunch of very talented puppeteers for large swaths of the play.
We rewind the story a bit for the second scene. Pi lives with his parents and sister and they run a zoo in India on the eve of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of, “The Emergency.” A darker chapter in Indian history, Gandhi suspended civil liberties throughout India and enacted or allowed many other measures of a less than enlightened nature that I’ll not go into here.
The Patels run a zoo, its animals ably portrayed by the show’s impressive puppeteers. We learn quickly that Pi is deeply spiritual and eclectic, he attends Hindu Temple, the Muslim Mosque and sings in the Catholic Choir. His parents and spiritual mentors are frustrated by Pi’s insistence that he intends to love God in all three traditions, forsaking none of them. While I am not as ecumenical as Pi, not by a long shot, the scene where the Imam, Priest and Pujari try to get him to commit to one religion is both funny and heartwarming. I disagree with the subtext that all religions are somehow equally true, naturally, but it doesn't stop me from appreciating the story.
The transition of the sets is impressive as well, a zoo one moment, a crowded market the next.
Amidst the civil turmoil roiling around them, Pi’s father tries to keep the family zoo running, but after acts of vandalism and malice targeting the animals, he applies for and receives a Canadian immigration visa for himself, his family, and his zoo animals. Before they leave, they receive a star attraction, a Bengal tiger, misnamed Richard Parker after the hunter who captured it. Pi, foolishly, enters the tiger paddock while Richard Parker is in there to his parents’ combined horror and his father’s fury.
To illustrate the danger Pi blithely disregarded, his father feeds his children’s favorite goat to the tiger. The puppeteers evoke a predator devouring prey to surprisingly visceral effect and the actors treat the scene with the dread earnestness required to sell the moment. Pi and his sister protest, but their father cuts them off, reciting all the different way each animal in the zoo could easily kill any one of them, from the Hyena’s crushing bite, to the orangutang’s immense strength that can snap human bones like twigs—and reminds Pi that for all of that, Man remains the most dangerous animal in the zoo.
While I don’t have it in me to feed the family dog to a bear to make my point, as a father fully aware of how lethal the real world actually is, I found myself sympathizing with Pi’s father. Walking the line of preparing your children for a hostile world without making them neurotically fearful is something all parents have to struggle with.
Excellent puppetry brings the tiger, Richard B. Parker, to life.
The Patel’s ocean voyage to Canada goes horribly wrong and the ship sinks with the whole family and their animals aboard. The frame story of Chen and Okamoto’s interview provides brief respites as Pi relates his tale to them back in the hospital room.
Following the catastrophe, Pi finds himself in raft with a wounded zebra, an orangutang and a hyena. The hyena kills and eats the zebra and then the orangutang only to be killed by Richard Parker, the tiger, who reappears just before the hyena would’ve killed Pi. Pi, nigh miraculously, establishes dominance over Richard Parker with an oar and a whistle. Pi then endures trials, witnesses sundry wonders, appeals to Vishnu, Allah, and Christ, and endures.
As Pi’s tale grows more and more outlandish, Okamoto eventually loses his temper, demanding the truth. Pi refuses at first but then relents, “You want a different story?”
Pi then relates a different version of the tale, one where it is a crewman with a broken leg, the brutal and abusive ship’s cook, and his mother on the raft with him. The cook amputates the crewman’s broken leg to lure fish, then eats the man once he expires. When Pi fails to capture a sea turtle, the cook hits him, sparking an altercation between the cook and Pi’s mother, leading to the cook’s murder of his mother, and Pi ultimately killing the cook in retribution, then eating him to survive.
With a seemingly plausible explanation in hand, Okamoto and Chen prepare to leave and file their reports, but Pi challenges them one last time. While they find one story more plausible than the other; both are still unlikely, and in both stories, Pi suffers and his family dies, in neither do they know why the ship sank, and they cannot actually prove either story as fact. Given all this, Pi reasons, which story do they prefer? Which is the better story?
“The one with the animals is the better story,” Okamoto admits.
“And so it is with God,” Pi says.
Okamoto files the story per Pi’s first version, with the animals rather than the human companions on his raft voyage.
I was instantly reminded of a scene from C.S. Lewis’s novel The Silver Chair, which is the fifth book in the Chronicles of Narnia. The murderous and tyrannical Lady of the Green Kirtle has trapped our heroes, English schoolchildren Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole and Narnian Marshwiggle, Puddleglum, in a subterranean realm away from the sun, and, so the villainess thinks, away from Aslan. Aslan, for anyone not tracking, is explicitly Jesus Christ appeared unto Narnia in the form of a giant, sapient lion. C.S. Lewis, unlike Tolkien, gives not a single damn for subtlety in his Christian allusions. Whether that bothers you or not is a matter of taste, of course. I happen to love both of them, but then again, I’m the target audience.
Puddleglum with the Children of Adam, Eustace Scrubb played by David Thwaite and Jill Pole played by Camila Power.
Late in the novel, the Lady of the Green Kirtle employs sorcery and dialectic to convince Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum that the overworld, Narnia, from whence they descended, never existed. Her arguments and memory-fogging spell are nearly effective until Puddleglum retorts that he will believe in Narnia though he cannot see it. I’m going to go ahead and quote directly, because it’s quite a passage:
“One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So, I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.”
On a certain level I agree with Pi and Puddleglum, sometimes I believe because I desperately want to believe. Sometimes my faith is like Pi’s, a choice because the alternative is too cruel. Sometimes my faith is that my faith will return.
But The Silver Chair adds another element to the story, one that I think advances the theme of Faith in a way The Life of Pi, for all its genuine depth, did not. Early in the book, when setting our heroes upon their quest, Aslan gives Jill Pole four signs for guidance, the final point of which is that the first person to ask the heroes for a favor in Aslan’s name must be granted that favor.
In the kingdom of the pit, the heroes find a masked mad man, seemingly a servant of the Lady of the Green Kirtle. In the course of their interaction he restrains himself to the eponymous Silver Chair, allegedly to whether a recurring psychotic episode. The man seems to lose his tenuous grasp on sanity in the chair, begging and pleading with them for release. Jill and Eustace naturally fear releasing someone so visibly dangerous, but then the man calls for their aid in the name of Aslan.
The heroes briefly debate, but Puddleglum insists they release the man—not because they know it will go well for them, but because they were commanded to by Aslan. To quote again:
“You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”
To be fair to Jill and Eustace, dude doesn't exactly look stable...
Puddleglum’s Faith in Aslan isn’t a matter of hope for reward, or of wishful thinking, it’s obedience to God for its own sake, trusting Him over his own judgment. Puddleglum is walking by faith and not by sight, knowing that even a tragic result in the here and now will contribute to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This is a big ask, but it's the difference between genuine faith and cultural observance.
I have endured a nontrivial amount of trauma and tragedy in my life. I mention this not to elicit sympathy, but to ground my next statement. A Faith which is merely a set of rose-colored glasses to render the Problem of Evil in a softer hue is insufficient to me. I require a Faith which stares premature death, grief, wanton cruelty, and incalculable atrocity in the face and yet remains. I require a God who endures and whose love is so assured that even were everything I love in this world laid waste tomorrow; I could rest assured in his ultimate goodness. I need a God whose Justice is so great it redeems all our feeble efforts to establish Justice here on Earth with our limited and biased capacities.
I need a God much greater and wiser than myself, who is more than me talking to myself and telling myself what I want to hear. I need God because my reason and wisdom, which are also nontrivial if I’m eschewing false modesty, are insufficient to encompass the contradictory beauty and depravity of mankind.
If God is merely a coping mechanism for life, or worse, a rubber stamp for decisions we’ve already made, then why would He be worthy of worship?
In the end, I only saw the play, I haven’t read the novel—it is entirely possible that The Life of Pi deals with these themes in greater detail in the book. And even without that greater detail, the play was still damned good, and worthy art. I recommend it if you’re in NYC while it’s running. It just left me with a spiritual need to respond—which is actually yet more evidence that it was well-done, indeed.