For Max Webster, there’s no more thrilling a challenge in the theater than getting a chance to stage the seemingly impossible. Indeed, take one look at his resume, which boasts such ambitious adaptations as Dr. Seuss’s eco-parable “The Lorax” and Ingmar Bergman’s lavish cinematic memoir “Fanny and Alexander.” For his latest theatrical gambit, he’s transformed Yann Martel’s prize-winning novel “Life of Pi,” centered on a shipwrecked boy adrift at sea for 227 days on a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger, into a sprawling stage play.
The story features the dramatic sinking of a ship, an island of meerkats, and a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a breaching humpback whale. Moreover, the book had already been adapted by Ang Lee into a visually stunning 3-D film that won Lee an Oscar for best director. How do you top that?
“There’s a logic to wanting to stage impossible things,” Webster says. “It comes out of this belief that the imagination is without bounds.”
Still, transporting “Life of Pi” to the stage — using inventive puppetry to embody the animals, as well as video projection, mechanical scenery, and a rotating boat — has amounted to a series of “endless challenges,” he says. “Now stage the sinking of a ship. Now stage a tiger on a lifeboat. It’s like constant invention, constant imagination.”
The resulting production, directed by Webster, touches down at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater for an extended run at the Loeb Drama Center, Dec. 4-Jan. 29, prior to opening on Broadway in March. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and with puppet and movement direction by Finn Caldwell, the show debuted in the United Kingdom in 2019 and then transferred to the West End last fall, where it received warm reviews and won five Olivier Awards, including one for best new play.
The play, set in India in the 1970s, follows the story of 16-year-old Pi (played by Adi Dixit), whose family owns a zoo. Pi is an inquisitive boy with a burgeoning interest in faith and philosophy. His father, a man of science who’s dismayed by his son’s religious devotion, decides the family must flee the country’s growing political turmoil and immigrate to Canada, selling his animals from the zoo and bringing them on a freighter across the Pacific. But the ship sinks in a storm, the family perishes, and Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with four other survivors — all animals from the ship. On the boat, Pi learns to survive at sea while attempting to co-exist with a 450-pound Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker) in the most extreme conditions.
The expansiveness of the show’s themes, Webster believes, makes for a rich experience. “Some people think it’s a show about family. Some think it’s a show about faith and survival. Some think it’s a show about immigration. Some people think it’s a show about facing your inner demons,” he says. “It’s about a boy and a tiger, but what that really means or what that’s a symbol of or what that resonates with in people’s lives is mysterious. It’s somehow an open metaphor, which is really beautiful.”
For Chakrabarti, the themes of loss and survival spoke to her most profoundly, and she wanted to capture “that sense of not knowing where you are in life, of unease and being adrift at sea. And I think that feeling of being at sea has been so magnified by the pandemic.”
While much of the novel is internal and told from Pi’s perspective, in a play you need to see the character in relationship with other people. So Chakrabarti placed Pi in conversation with his mother, father, and others in his life, as he struggles for survival against cataclysmic odds.
“My thought was that when we’re struggling or in a difficult situation, the voices that have informed your life, good or bad, are the ones that you hear in your head — advice that your mom or dad might have given you or an older sibling who defends you,” Chakrabarti says. “People who have affected you in life come to you at points of crisis. So that’s what happens. His family returns to remind him how to survive. It’s a theatrical way of how we all survive, isn’t it?”
While Pi’s faith helps him endure, it’s also tested. Webster says he sees a connection between the show’s themes and the suspension of disbelief in theater. “The act of theater asks you to imagine, because you have a puppet onstage and you have to imagine that the puppet isn’t a piece of wood, that the puppet is actually a tiger or a hyena or a butterfly,” he says. “That relationship between belief in religion and imagination and the theater has always been of interest to me, and I think that’s at the heart of this adaptation.”
For Dixit, a 2021 University of Southern California grad, preparing for the part has been a “physical shock” because he’s onstage for nearly the entire show. He has an intense workout routine, adheres to a strict diet, and has started going to a climbing gym.
“It definitely takes a toll on you emotionally and physically, because you’re being asked to stretch in all these different directions. He goes through such a traumatic experience, so it’s really every category of emotion and even mixed emotions,” says Dixit, who quit his day jobs as a fitness instructor and ice cream shop clerk just this summer.
To create the puppets, including a giraffe, a turtle, flying fish, meerkats, and more, Webster says designers Caldwell and Nick Barnes were influenced by the South African theater company Handspring, which brought to life the acclaimed “War Horse” in London and on Broadway and whose style draws on the Japanese form of Bunraku.
Puppetry, Webster says, creates the kind of tactile magic that sparks the audience’s imagination. “In theater, somehow the act of declaring the making of it is like a hand out to the audience that asks them to come up and dance, and I think that’s very beautiful because it asks you to actively engage.”
In the wake of the pandemic, Webster says it’s been a moving experience to bring to life a show about surviving under the most difficult and unexpected obstacles in the face of fear and uncertainty.
“The character is put under extreme distress, and ‘Life of Pi’ takes the loss really seriously, but alongside the loss there is also survival and optimism and hope and regeneration and rebirth,” he says. “And at this moment in time, I think both of those things are important — that we’re able to engage in a collective grief and also a collective moment of optimism about how we’re going to step forward in a new way and what positive things can come out of it.”
LIFE OF PI
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Dec. 4-Jan. 29. Tickets from $30. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.