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.


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.

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