Visual Arts Feature: “Life of Pi” — Imagination by Design at The A.R.T.

Visual Arts Feature: “Life of Pi” — Imagination by Design at The A.R.T.

By Mark Favermann

The most mesmerizing characters in this stunningly visual production are brilliant life-size puppets.

Richard Parker and Nick Barnes in Life of Pi. Photo: Johann Persson

Stagecraft, touching on all the technical aspects of theatrical production, including scenic design, stage machinery, lighting, sound, projects, costume design, etc., has long been a creative hallmark of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. With Life of Pi, the dramatization of the Booker Prize-winning book by Yann Martel and Academy Award-winning movie directed by Ang Lee, the A.R.T. has gone beyond excellence and achieved greatness. First brought to the stage in Sheffield, England and then produced in London’s West End at the Wyndham Theatre, the Olivier award-winning show‘s North American premiere is currently taking place at the Loeb Drama Center (through January 29). The production opens on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre in early March 2023.

It would be hard to come up with a better exemplar of the Greek word for theater — theatron, “a place of seeing” — than the Life of Pi. In this case, spectacle expands on the power of drama to awe as well as illuminate. The most mesmerizing characters in this stunningly visual play are brilliant life-size puppets.

Puppetry is a primordial form of entertainment, dating back to at least the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece, though some forms may have originated as long ago as 3000 years BC in Ancient Egypt. Marionettes are often objects, often resembling human, animal, or mythical figures. The narrative art of puppetry takes various forms, but they all share an interest in animating inanimate performing objects to tell a story. The manipulators, puppeteers, make use of movements of their hands, arms, even legs, or control devices, such as rods or strings to move the body, head, limbs, and in some cases the mouth and eyes of the puppet.

In Life of Pi, various “zoo animals” — zebras, giraffes, an orangutan named Orange Juice (OJ) and her baby, a goat, hyenas, swimming sea turtles, floating butterflies, a school of fish, and a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker — are portrayed by puppets whose visceral presence (and human personalities) accrue metaphorical as well as metaphysical significance. These life-size figures come out of a 500-year-old Japanese puppet tradition — Bunraku. The puppets are manipulated in full view of the audience. They are operated by one to three costumed people, each controlling a different part of the puppet’s body.

Prior examples of this approach were explored in the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, whose puppets were created by Finn Caldwell and The Lion King by creator/director Julie Taymor. But, unlike those other productions, in which puppetry was more a sculptured vehicle for movement (War Horse) and/or clever masks and costumes (The Lion King), the puppets in Life of Pi are nuanced in life-like ways — they seem to breathe, twitch, and tremble. This achievement was recognized at the 2022 Olivier Awards: the collective group of the rotating seven puppeteers manipulating Richard Parker were named Best Supporting Actor.

The extraordinary puppet design for Life of Pi was masterminded by Nick Barnes, Caroline Bowman, and the South African Finn Caldwell. Besides being in charge of art direction and functional design, Caldwell directed the movement/choreography for the puppets. The creators’ intent was to synthesize character, movement, and energy through the physical forms of these life-size puppets. Because of their size, each was fabricated out of the lightweight material plastozote, a foam material used in orthopedics, gym mats, and pool accessories. Each large puppet took many weeks and several stages to craft.

Sea turtle being painted by Caroline Bowman for Life of Pi, by Nick Barnes Puppets, Photo: Life of Pi by Nick Barnes Puppets documentary.

According to Barnes, the major challenge was to have these lightweight figures balance lightness of weight with strength. There was also the engineering challenge of keeping the multiple parts of the puppets connected while also allowing the critters a flexible range of movement. Each puppet character needed to have the potential for a wide range of movement: t.hese inanimate but 3-D objects were called on to amble, shift, shuffle, even jump. Another creative challenge: each was a figurative sculpture. Adding to a sense of reality, the creatures needed to be colored, painted, tinted, and shaded. How could the individual character of each animal be expressed in a flexible yet durable form that could last throughout the show? The puppet makers succeeded splendidly. The experience is spellbinding — the audience is drawn into each character’s emotional and physical journey.

Tim Hatley created the beyond exquisite scenic design; he also designed the production’s costumes. The video design by Andrzej Goulding, lighting design by Tim Lutkin, and sound design by Carolyn Downing melded into a strikingly beautiful collaboration. Goulding has not only come up with a marvelously textured videoscape, but within it a hyper-realistic ocean environment: sea waters flow, splash, and crash. Incredibly, viewers feel the ocean current surging and the lifeboat pitching and rolling with the arrival of threatening wind and rain. This visual ensemble creative team did not just create spectacular projections, but its marvelous use of interwoven media — integrating sight and sound — sets a new standard for the use of immersive theatricality to stir the mind and the heart.

Mark Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes, and public art. An award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002 has been a design consultant to the Boston Red Sox. Writing about urbanism, architecture, design and fine arts, Mark is contributing editor of the Arts Fuse.

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