The Oldest Boy at the Jungle Theater

Tsering Dorjee Bawa, Masanari Kawahara and Eric "Pogi" Sumangil in The Oldest Boy. Photo by Dan Norman

Tsering Dorjee Bawa, Masanari Kawahara and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil in The Oldest Boy. Photo by Dan Norman.

In Sarah Ruhl‘s The Oldest Boy (at the Jungle, through Dec 18) culture and religion trump (Lord forgive me for using the t-word) the unselfishness, the pure life-focus, the power of parenthood.

In the play, two friendly but very serious-minded Tibetan monks arrive on “Mother” and “Father’s” American doorstep and claim that their three year old toddler son, Tenzin, is the reincarnation of the lama’s deceased Tibetan “teacher.” Father is a Tibetan emigré, with a foot, significantly, in both cultures. That Tenzin is a reincarnated lama gives the visitors the right, they claim, to steal (Is this the right word? I can’t think of another.) the young boy away to India – where Mom and Dad can visit any time.

Yikes.

The Oldest Boy portrays Tibetan culture beautifully, the best thing about this play. The performances of Tsering Dorjee Bawa as the monk and (especially) Eric “Pogi” Sumangil as the lama amaze. Their smiling viciousness provides rich energy. Throughout, one can feel, vividly, their reverence for Tenzin. In Act One, America, they seem, well, insane. The way they dress, what they’re proposing to do. They feel more at-ease in Act Two, in the exquisite monastery.

The design for Act Two, with its intricate paintings and hangings, is breath-taking: Mina Kinukawa (sets), Karin Olson (lights), Sonya Berlovitz (costumes), Sean Healey (sound) have done outstanding work here. The dances, the ceremonies, the singing, the “enthronement,” wow. Act Two is a feast for the eyes. Many kudos to director Sarah Rasmussen (also Jungle’s artistic director) for pulling all this together.

In The Oldest Boy, Tenzin, as you may know, is a puppet, designed, operated and voiced by Masanari Kawahara. I kept waiting for this not to work. But it does work, wonderfully, largely because of Kawahara’s understated, self-effacing power.

(But one wonders: would the central action of The Oldest Boy, the… spiriting away of the toddler son, have played differently if Tenzin were portrayed by a flesh-and-blood actor? Does puppetry make it more acceptable?)

Mother and Father make protesting noises, but essentially they allow the Tibetans to run roughshod over their household. Their son is taken from them. This causes these characters to feel ineffectual, though this is in no way due to a lack of talent and charisma on the parts of Christina Baldwin or Randy Reyes. Indeed, Reyes and Baldwin are as good as actors get.

Curmudgeonly diatribe: there is no such thing as reincarnation. If Buddhists, and Tibetans, Hindus, Malayans, et al want to believe in it, fine, no problem. But this does not give them the right to disrupt homes and kidnap young children. For The Oldest Boy to celebrate this – does it? See the play and decide for yourself – is, well, imho, offensive. End of curmudgeonly diatribe.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.

2 comments for “The Oldest Boy at the Jungle Theater

  1. Mari Wittenbreer
    November 28, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Dear John Olive and Maxwell Collard,

    When I saw this play I expected many people would like it. Personally, I wasn’t impressed by either the writing or the acting so I was glad I had not been assigned it to review it.

    My reservations (besides the fact that as John stated it would be quite another play if the the child were a living being rather than a puppet) lean more towards the fact that it is superficial. I fear Ruhl is cashing in on the high tide of popularity of both meditation in general and Tibetan monasticism specifically.

    As one who has meditated since the early 1970’s I thought Sarah Ruhl’s play surprisingly bland. I do like her work. I have seen almost every one of her previous works (and read the other one). This one is my least favorite. The plot is an American version of the Dali Lama’s biography. Not much new or interesting. The parents’ reactions, from beginning to end, are all as expected and the ending is known from the beginning to anyone familiar with the Dalai Lama’s biography.

    With the exception of the baby girl there is no plot turn that wasn’t a repetition of a story most of us already know. And in the case of the baby girl Ruhl has the mother say twice–or three times?–just to be sure we get the joke– “at least she’s a girl they won’t take her away.”

    I also agree wholeheartedly with John’s opinion that the set in the second act made a gorgeous backdrop for the action. I did not believe that either the gifted Christina Baldwin nor the stiff Randy Reyes ever felt much in the way of parental love for the papier mache puppet. Sorry I just didn’t.

    That being said, I am happy to hear these other takes on the production. Perhaps there is more there than what I saw in the first go round if it can garner such differing responses.

    I respect both of your view points. Maxwell– I appreciate the opportunity to discuss theatre works in greater depth so thanks for the post. i wish I had read it sooner.

    Thank you both–Mari W.

  2. Maxwell Collyard
    November 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Fortuitously, I too got to see the wonderful production of The Oldest Boy produced by The Jungle Theater. It is a charming and beautiful journey where characters struggle with attachment and their familial bonds, especially that of parenthood. It all begins with the arrival of Tibetan Buddhist monks looking for the reincarnation of a Lama. You should all see it.

    Unfortunately, you also got to see it.

    My Curmudgeonly Diatribe:

    Though reviewers are totally entitled to opinions, I really think that there is a difference between a review of a play and a bastardized interpretation of a play bolstered by xenophobia/theophobia(of the non-western theologies). I realize that sounds a little heavy, but let’s play a little game called

    “The Racist Frightened Ramblings I Heard in My Head While Barely Listening to What Was Going On vs. What’s Actually in the Play”

    John Olive:
    “That Tenzin is a reincarnated lama gives the visitors the right, they claim, to steal (Is this the right word? I can’t think of another.) the young boy away to India”

    “In Act One, America, they seem, well, insane. The way they dress, what they’re proposing to do.”

    “there is no such thing as reincarnation. If Buddhists, and Tibetans, Hindus, Malayans, et al want to believe in it, fine, no problem. But this does not give them the right to disrupt homes and kidnap young children.”

    Hmm… Interesting. Sounds scary even! I wish I had some text to give me an idea of how disruptive, insane, and entitled these monks are! Let’s have a look:

    LAMA:
    “I would never force you to give over your child. You are his mother. It would have to be done at the right time, voluntarily. Your son has had many lifetimes, he will know what he must do. Until then, please, don’t be distressed, or worried.”

    Oh shit! That sounds nothing like the review… One begins to wonder if listening to the words of a play is important to a reviewer, because in this case, it seems the author had no intent to receive the characters from the moment it began–

    But perhaps, I’m overreacting? Perhaps, I’m wrong?

    Let’s delve deeper…

    John Olive:
    “Mother and Father make protesting noises, but essentially they allow the Tibetans to run roughshod over their household. Their son is taken from them. This causes these characters to feel ineffectual…”
    I wouldn’t call any part of Christina Baldwin’s text or performance of that text “protesting noises” and I certainly could not deign to call it “ineffectual.” Now let’s check what’s actually in the play!

    MOTHER:
    “That’s a beautiful idea when I’m thinking about someone else’s child but it’s not a beautiful idea when it’s my child. It’s horrific.”

    Wow. Absolutely ineffectual. Dripping with apathy almost. Let’s check the review again?

    “But one wonders: would the central action of The Oldest Boy, the… spiriting away of the toddler son, have played differently if Tenzin were portrayed by a flesh-and-blood actor? Does puppetry make it more acceptable?”

    What’s actually in the play:

    HE’S A PUPPET BECAUSE THE CENTRAL ACTION IS THAT THE KID IS A REINCARNATION. THIS IS NOT SOME CONNIVING PLOT TO GET YOU TO ACCEPT TIBETAN BUDDHISM (I know Buddhism is very very scary) IT IS AMONG MANY THINGS MERELY A DEVICE IN A PLAY TO CONVEY THE FACT THAT THE CHILD IS A REINCARNATION OPERATED BY A MUCH OLDER LAMA.

    You wouldn’t be wondering that if you considered your job to listen to/watch plays. Maybe it’s easier to go into the theatre with preconceived ideas and scribble on a pad all the witty stupid insensitive shit you want to say instead of actually watching it.

    Beyond that, the fact the reviewer takes pleasure in viewing Tibet as “exquisite” or a “feast for the eyes” or “breath-taking,” yet refuses to give less than one fuck about receiving anything else about Tibet (culturally/religiously). Suspend your disbelief for a culture other than your own?

    So yeah, John Olive I invite you to watch the show again, actually listen, and write a review that actually says how the show was, not how the culture of Tibet should be seen not heard.

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