Betsy Rosen has been working with puppets since the age of 8. In fact, the Baltimore native – now based in Queens, N.Y., when not performing – cut her puppeteering teeth at Open Space Arts in Reisterstown, a Baltimore suburb she called “my second home from 8 to 18.”
There, she learned how to build puppets and fashion papier-mâché. Now she is one of several puppeteers bringing the natural world to life in the North American debut of “Life of Pi” at American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge. Recently she spoke to the Journal about her career, the art of puppeteering, and the Olivier Award-winning play.
Recalling a Purim-connected show in which she played Queen Esther, Rosen – who had her bat mitzvah at Baltimore’s Beth Israel synagogue – noted that “An actor would wear a large papier-mâché head that would be the combination of puppetry and action.” Later – speaking of master mask and puppet maker Eric Bass and his Sandglass Theater in Vermont – she continued, “[Bass and company] were training me as I was doing puppetry.”
Eventually, she cocreated and codirected an original work for the New York Fringe Festival. Although Rosen is now a seasoned puppeteer – with work at such venues as Lincoln Center and the Sydney Opera House – her approach remains very fresh.
“Even though I’ve been doing puppetry for about 30 years now, in some fashion every new puppet has its own learning curve,” she said. For Rosen, that learning curve has included such diverse “Life of Pi” challenges as the hind legs of the zebra, the head of the orangutan, and the inside of the tiger. Calling puppetry “an art form to convey metaphor for life,” she added that “metaphor speaks very well to children.”
Rosen also asserted that the production “really feels like magic.” That estimation is no hyperbole. “Life of Pi,” adapted from Yann Martel’s novel by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed sharply by Max Webster, and graced with vivid puppet design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, has all of the sublime enchantment and breathtaking visual artistry that made “War Horse” a theatrical powerhouse. At the same time, Pi’s harrowing ocean odyssey becomes both a unique rite of passage and a Rashomon-recalling quest for truth.
That quest begins in 1978 Mexico as investigators ponder the reality of Pi’s claims about the wreck of the Canada-bound Tsimtsum, a ship whose Kabbalistic name refers to a divine contraction of light. They seek to know exactly what happened to Pi’s family and the details of his amazing 227-day struggle as the ship’s sole survivor. Pi submits that “my story will make you believe in God.”
Of which belief is he talking about? Pi’s story includes consideration of Christianity and Islam as well as his Indian family’s Hinduism. There is a moment when his sister, mentioning the word synagogue, speculates that he could even become a Jew. During his ordeal, he does appeal to the gods, though there are striking moments when religions are compared to cages. At other moments, Pi sees the ferocious yet majestic Tiger – named Richard Parker – as a major factor in his survival.
Theatergoers will have to make their own decisions about the truth of Pi’s animal-rich narrative and an alternative version that he offers the skeptical investigators. Still, Adi Dixit does bring terrific energy and riveting delivery to his storytelling. The exquisite design – Tim Hatley’s rich scenic design, Tim Lutkin’s poetic lighting (especially during moments of storm) and especially the team of gifted puppeteers – brings the creature-dominated version to convincing life.
Look for inspired evocations of butterflies and fish and most of all the alternately intimidating and vulnerable tiger. (Parents will need to judge whether their younger children will be able to deal with graphic representations of animals killing other animals).
Can humanity and the animal world survive the dangers of climate change and live together in peace? “Life of Pi” provides artistic food for thought as well as spell-binding theater. Θ
“Life of Pi” runs at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, through Jan. 29.