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Arts & Culture

Eyes (and Paws) of the Tiger

Alum and Faculty Member Star in Broadway Production of ‘Life of Pi’

By Sala Levin ’10

On stage image of tiger in life of pi

In "Life of Pi," playing now on Broadway, UMD lecturer Jonathan David Martin and alum Betsy Rosen '06 are two of the actor puppeteers who play the Bengal tiger Richard Parker. Martin, whose face is visible at left, plays the "head" of the powerful cat, while Rosen, crouched inside the puppet, maneuvers Richard Parker's torso and front paws.

Photo by Rebecca J. Michelson

With a cautionary swish of the tail, a watchful scan of the eyes and a slinky lowering of the neck, the hulking tiger feasts upon its dinner, a green fish lying lifeless in its paws.

You’d be forgiven for anticipating David Attenborough’s plummy narration kicking in and describing the powerful cat’s hunting habits. But the Bengal tiger here is a 35-pound construction of wood and aluminum bound together by bungee cords and covered in foam, and maneuvering it are three puppeteer actors embodying the feline character Richard Parker in “Life of Pi” on Broadway—and two of those three are Terps.

Jonathan David Martin, a lecturer in the University of Maryland’s Immersive Media Design program, and Betsy Rosen ’06 are giving a vivid personality and physicality to the vocal but wordless Parker. The production’s fierce, prowling tiger is trapped at sea in a flimsy lifeboat with the teenage Pi, the sole human survivor of a shipwreck that killed his family, and most of the zoo animals they owned, as they journeyed from India to North America.

“It’s about the relationship between the two of them,” said Martin. “At one point, Pi says to Richard Parker, ‘I’m only alive because of you.’”

Jonathan David Martin headshot

Based on Yann Martel’s 14 million-copy-selling book, released in 2001, and Ang Lee’s 2012 film version, for which Lee won an Academy Award for best director, the stage version started in Sheffield, England in 2019, then went on to London’s West End and the American Repertory Theater in Boston. It opened in New York City in March and is scheduled to close on July 23.

Rosen and Martin joined the project in Boston. He first appeared on Broadway in 2011’s “War Horse,” when he operated the 100-pound titular horse puppet. Martin, who joined UMD in 2017, is also co-artistic director of the New York City-based Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative, a multidisciplinary production company focusing on works with socially relevant themes.

Betsey Rosen headshot

Rosen is making her Broadway debut in this show, but her interest in puppetry is longstanding. Growing up in Reisterstown, Md., she first started taking puppetry courses and performing through Open Space Arts, a local theater organization. She threw herself into puppeteering during middle school and high school, but at UMD, where she majored in theatre, she “wanted to be taken seriously as an actor,” and didn’t talk much about her passion until a classmate enlisted her help in a puppetry production he was working on. After graduating, she became known as “the puppet girl” in Washington, D.C., theater, she said, before moving to New York City about 10 years ago.

[A Puppet by Any Other Name]

To play Richard Parker, Martin acts as the “head,” the puppeteer in charge of the tiger’s head, including its articulated ears and moveable jaw; he stands outside the puppet with his face visible to the audience. Rosen is the cat’s “heart”; crouched inside the puppet, she maneuvers the tiger’s torso and both of its front paws, and her face is hidden. A third puppeteer controls the tail and back paws.

“I can only see my feet and Jonathan’s feet,” said Rosen. “I have to trust him to lead me.”

The three puppeteers communicate with one another by coordinating their breathing and through the structure of the animal’s spine, which they all are touching in different spots. Coils and bungee cords allow the puppet to move smoothly, letting the actors show off the cat-like movements they painstakingly worked to perfect after watching hours of video footage of real animals. (The play also features hyenas, zebras, orangutans and goats.)

“The animals here … prowl and canter and leap with astonishing character and style. And Richard Parker … is the show’s striped jewel,” wrote Alexis Soloski in The New York Times, which named the play a “critic’s pick.” “Chuffing, growling and panting as he stalks the boat’s perimeter, he is at once beguiling, gentlemanly and quite dangerous.”

Richard Parker is so powerful, Martin said, that even though his is typically the only face visible, audience members may not even notice him. “I’ve had friends who come specifically to see me, and afterward they say to me, ‘I tried to look at you, but I couldn’t help looking at the tiger.’”

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