Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mother and Father (who are given no names by the playwright) and their son Tenzin are family in New York City. Father is an emigré from Tibet; Mother is from Cincinnati. He is a Buddhist on the verge of an arranged marriage to a Tibetan girl he has never met. She was raised a Catholic, but lost her faith and has been in search of a new spiritual path. He owns a small Tibetan restaurant, she is an adjunct English professor. As if pre-ordained, they meet, marry, and Tenzin enters their life. Then, out of the blue, a Lama and a Monk arrive from Tibet announcing that they believe Tenzin to be the reincarnation of the Lama's deceased teacher, and that the boy's spirit requires him to go to the Buddhist monastery in India to be groomed by his former student to take his place as a reborn Lama. He is three years old.
Mother is aghast. She cannot fathom giving up her darling young son, not to anyone, not for anything. She is told that she must voluntarily agree, yet the message is delivered in such a way that she feels it allows her no choice. She is torn between belief and disbelief, but even if she believes what the Lama tells her, how can she part with her son? What if they are all wrong, and years later she is looked upon as having abandoned her child? Father too has hesitations, but it is clear that he will be able to adhere to the Lama's request. After all, those are the beliefs in which his childhood had been immersed. As for Tenzin, he seems willing, if not eager, to attach himself to the Lama. For Mother, the choice is far from clear, and her agonizing reckoning over this impossible act of faith that is asked of her becomes the core of the play.
The first act of The Oldest Boy is set in Mother and Father's stylish New York apartment, displaying a mix of trendy decor and Tibetan artwork. To one side we see Tenzin's play area, stocked to the brim with toys and books, a typical middle class child's estate. A flashback sequence enacted in Father's restaurant describes how he and Mother came to be a pair. The second act transports as a completely different universe, the monastery in India, brilliantly painted in reds and golds, with open pillars revealing a stand of lofty trees. Mother appears dressed in Tibetan garb. We learn that after the passing of some months, perhaps a year, they have come to let Tenzin see the monastery, hoping that once he has seen it, he will be content to return home with them. At least that is Mother's hope.
Short of revealing exactly how the play ends, I can say that Ruhl has not devised a mystery plot that challenges us to guess where each next twist will take us. Her concern seems less about what happens, or even the feasibility of such a thing (apparently there have been real life cases akin to Tenzin's), but rather to document the mother's journey from total possession of her child to a realization that in the end he is not hers, but must move into his own place in the world. This does not mean a violent rift must come between them, but the natural process of separation between mother and child. For most mothers, this comes much more gradually, and certainly not when their child is so young. Tenzin's mother is asked to compress the emotions and adjustments natural to this process to warp speed.
In a very wise choice by the playwright, Tenzin is not to be played by an actor, but by a puppetin this case, beautifully crafted by Masanari Kawahara, who also operates and provides a pitch-perfect child's voice for the puppet. Kawahara's exquisite craftsmanship was on view earlier this season at Pillsbury House Theatre where he created puppets to portray the title characters in The Children. For The Oldest Boy he has created a Tenzin whose face conveys a kind of calm, unnatural to most children, that gives credence to his destiny. He is able to articulate thoughts and feelings that would be beyond the scope of even the most talented child actor. At the same time, his voice and jerky movements very much are those of a young child. The effect is to accept the Lama's pronouncement as a given, and allow us to focus on how this impacts his emotionally besieged mother.
Christina Baldwin is a wonderful choice for Mother. As an actor, Baldwin's emotional transparency reveals her hopes and fears, even as she articulates all sorts of defenses to guard them. Randy Reyes, as Father, holds his feelings within. He acted against his duty to family by canceling the arranged marriage to marry Mother, but he cannot deny his homeland and his faith. He expresses this with quiet certitude. Reyes and Baldwin are compelling in scenes that depict the tension wrought by their different needs and perspectives. The two are less successful conveying attraction and chemistry in their flashback scenes powerfully enough to have made their coming together seem inevitable, which is a necessary preamble to make their union and the child that comes of it seem to be fated.
Eric "Pogi" Sumangil gives a winning portrayal of the Lama, expressing warmth, kindness and wisdom, but never wavering in his certainty about Tenzin's past life and future destiny. Tsering Dorjee Bawa plays the Monk, with complete sincerity and dedication to his beliefs. He also served as Tibetan cultural consultant to the production, which no doubt contributed greatly to the sense of authenticity in the set design (by Mina Kinukawa), costumes (by Sonya Berlovitz), and music.
Music is an important element of the production, particularly in enactments of a traditional Tibetan rituals, including a wedding. At a critical juncture the beautiful Deer Dance is performed (with lithe grace) by Yeshi Samdup wearing a deer-head mask, also created by Masanari Kawahara for this production. This deer represents gentle enlightenment, and in the dance, it removes evil spirits and negative energies, to be replaced by good spirits. This is a stunning moment in the play. It does not really advance the plot, but bears earnest witness to the spiritual life of the Tibetan Buddhists.
The Oldest Boy has a few rough spots. As written, there is a sense that we miss out on important stations in Mother's emotional journey that occurred between the scenes in act one and act two. That aside, the play and production offer a bounty of riches, opening a window into Tibetan culture, especially of merit for audiences in Minnesota, which is home to the second largest concentration of Tibetan Americans in the United States.
The production at Jungle Theater is strikingly beautiful. Sarah Rasmussen's direction allows all of the beauty to glisten while maintaining a well-paced production that moves fluidly from scene to scene. And it presents an intensified examination of the pain and pride that parents must inevitably face as their children fly from the nest.
The Oldest Boy continues at the Jungle Theater through December 18, 2016. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $35.00 - $48.00, Senior (60+) discount - $5.00 off per ticket, Public Rush - $10.00 off, Student Rush (with valid ID) half price. For more information and tickets call 612-822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Written by Sarah Ruhl; Director: Sarah Rasmussen; Cultural Consultant: Tsering Dorjee Bawa; Puppet Design & Construction: Masanari Kawahara; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Associate Director: Katherine Pardue; Technical Director: John Stillwell; Production Manager: Sara Shives
Cast: Christina Baldwin (Mother), Tsering Dorjee Bawa (a Monk), Masanari Kawahara (The Oldest Boy), Randy Reyes (Father), Yeshi Samdup (Musician, Dancer, Monk), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (a Lama)