CAMBRIDGE — Star quality: You’ve either got it or you don’t.
It’s evident that Richard Parker has it in abundance from the moment he strides majestically onstage in “Life of Pi.” He’s such an imposing figure, such a combination of terrible beauty and coiled lethality, that you can’t take your eyes off him.
However, when he’s not in view, “Life of Pi” has a tendency to sag, resulting in a decidedly uneven production at the American Repertory Theater. Having won a batch of Olivier Awards during its London run, Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, directed by Max Webster, is making its North American premiere at the ART before heading to Broadway.
Richard Parker, brought to life by some brilliant puppeteering, is a Royal Bengal tiger with whom teenager Pi (Adi Dixit) has to share a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days. As worst-case scenarios go, that would have to rank pretty high. The youth’s challenge is to figure out a modus vivendi with the tiger that does not involve Pi becoming a menu item.
The challenge for the creative team behind “Life of Pi” was to make the non-lifeboat scenes compelling in their own right, and there they fall short.
It’s as if Chakrabarti and Webster et al. were so confident in the sheer wow factor of the production’s visual virtuosity that they neglected to ensure the audience would be engrossed by other aspects of the play. A certain cohesion is missing. “Life of Pi” is a feast for the eyes, less so for the ears; the production is weighed down in spots by leaden dialogue.
Pi has ended up stranded at sea because a storm sank the freighter on which he, his father (Rajesh Bose, excellent), mother (Mahira Kakkar), sister (Sonya Venugopal), and several animals were being transported to Canada, the family having sold their zoo in India to start over in a new country. Pi is the sole human survivor of the shipwreck.
Before they embark on that ill-fated journey, there’s a protracted scene of Pi with his family at a market in India, where a theological dispute erupts that is less than riveting. The show’s momentum is further slowed by its framing device: the questioning of Pi in a Mexican hospital where he is recovering from his ordeal, by a representative of the Japanese Ministry of Transport (Daisuke Tsuji) and an official from the Canadian Embassy (Kirstin Louie). Whenever the action switches to that hospital room, the production nearly grinds to a halt.
“Life of Pi,” which was also adapted into a 2012 film directed by Ang Lee, wants us to think about the nature of storytelling, and about what, ultimately, we are looking for in stories. Tightening the market and hospital scenes, which are bedeviled by some stiff acting, would improve its own storytelling and clear space for more time with Pi and Richard Parker.
The scenic design (by Tim Hatley, who also designed the costumes) and especially the puppet design (by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, the latter of whom also provided puppet and movement direction) are flat-out extraordinary. As with the puppet-driven stage productions of “The Lion King” and “War Horse,” it doesn’t dispel the magic a whit that we can see the puppeteers manipulating the puppets, which range from Richard Parker to a large zebra, a friendly orangutan, and a malevolent hyena, all of whom also end up in the lifeboat (though they don’t last long).
There are some unforgettable moments in “Life of Pi.” My favorite is a scene that deftly illustrates the curious connection Pi and Richard Parker have forged as they both struggle to survive on that lifeboat: Boy and tiger stare at each other, face close to face, before bending their heads to jointly devour a large sea turtle.
Playing Pi is a tall order, made harder for Dixit on Wednesday night when the performance was halted for a few minutes by what were described over the P.A. system as “technical difficulties.” While Dixit does a creditable job overall, that extra degree of intensity that would really take us inside Pi’s emotions is mostly lacking.
But by the end there’s no question that Pi has learned — lived — the truth of his father’s admonition early in the play: “This world is dangerous. It is a mistake to think we’re safe.”
LIFE OF PI
Play by Lolita Chakrabarti. Based on the novel by Yann Martel. Directed by Max Webster. Puppetry and movement direction by Finn Caldwell. Presented by American Repertory Theater at Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Jan. 29. Tickets start at $30. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org