Monday, September 21, 2015

"The Oldest Boy"

The Oldest Boy
Sarah Ruhl

Wayne Lee, Jinn S. Kim & Christine Albright
In the past few years, stages all across the Bay Area have had a love affair with Sarah Ruhl, offering acclaimed and often multiple productions of A Clean House; Dead Man’s Cell Phone; Eurydice; Orlando; Late: a cowboy song; and In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.  Marin Theatre Company opens its 49th season with the West Coast premiere of yet another play, The Oldest Boy, where Sarah Ruhl takes a fascinating, slightly off-kilter story and creates a mesmerizing tapestry of words, images, sounds, and ideas that together reveal heart-touching truths about the human condition --  particularly motherhood.

Christine Albright represents the role of Mother and is brilliant in portraying all the many tender and frustrating moments, anxieties and hopes, exhaustions and exhilarations that most mothers face daily.  We meet her as she diligently attempts to meditate on a floor surrounded with all the entrapments of a three-year-old (scattered toys, blanket turned into tent, tossed clothes and snacks … and of course a monitor to hear the slightest, next-room cry).  An unexpected doorbell interrupts her peace in more ways than she can ever imagine as two red-robed holy men enter.  One soon tells her and her Tibetan-refugee husband (a solid and pensive Kurt Uy) that their son is likely his reincarnated teacher and destined to become a lama.  Jinn S. Kim as the Lama brings to his role a calming, pleasant, totally respectful manner that does not hide his deep determination that this young son must relocate to India and to a monastery for intense instruction.  Along with Wayne Lee as his accompanying, always smiling and obedient Monk, they intrude into the lives of this Western-culture Mother and displaced-Eastern-culture Father, who are shocked and saddened, yet somehow honored and humbled that their son may be chosen for greatness.   Being careful to pay deep homage to the role of the mother in determining the fate of her son, the two visitors also project to each other penetrative, knowing looks that a greater fate has already made the decision.  Together, this fine ensemble performs a kind of ritual dance as Father and Mother, Lama and Monk mix and mingle to balance present life’s tugs of parental love, family bonds, and personal wishes against some unseen, but increasingly clear destiny.  That Act Two has shifted from a New Jersey apartment to a stunning Buddhist temple with the Himalayas as its backdrop (designed by Collette Pollard) comes as no surprise to us or to the family.

Melvign Badiola, Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), Jed Parsario, Tenzin & Christine Albright
Rounding out this excellent cast is the real star of the show, Tenzin, the son and the only character whose name we learn.  A puppet who is intensely, even reverently supported and moved by puppeteers Melvign Badiola and Jed Parsario, Tenzin is full of three-year-old mischief and inquisitiveness and is expressive to the point that it is impossible to believe his face is actually painted and stationary.  Although only three, he is beautifully voiced by the hunched, older man Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), whom we come to recognize as the former Lama master of his previous life.  As Tenzin approaches being enthroned as the newest Lama, his toddler ways slowly give way to a calm, knowing maturity that is still boyish yet shows a deeper understanding he now has of who he really is – all magnificently portrayed by what we begin to forget is a puppet.  Jesse Mooney-Bullock is to be much congratulated as the Puppetry Creator.

Sarah Ruhl likes to catch us off guard, to change abruptly the flow and pace, and to educate while also entertaining.  Under the inventive and sensitive direction of Jessica Thebus, our playwright once again takes us on side trips from the main story.   An extensive pause (perhaps too extensive in after-thought) allows Mother and Father to explain how they met at his celebrated restaurant on a stormy evening (and the storm their proposed marriage caused for his traditional family in India).  Ms. Ruhl later inserts a long, wondrously moving sequence in Act Two where no words are spoken for many minutes yet some of the evening’s clearest messages are conveyed.  And a side conversation between the Mother and the Lama about their own mothers and former teachers could be a worthy piece unto itself apart from the rest of the play.

Themes of beginnings and endings, of bringing into life and of knowing when to let go, and of the interplay of conscious choice and felt-destiny permeate throughout The Oldest Boy.  These are particularly made poignant as struggles any mother and her child must face together and separately.  The play also opens a realm not so explored in most Western theatre of what exists in the ‘in between.’  “You jump from one language to another, and there is something in between,” we hear.  Sarah Ruhl challenges us that new meanings and possibilities exist in being open to what happens between death and life in addition to life and death; and she highlights a possibility of eternal continuity and connectedness through the interplay we witness between the living Oldest Boy and the puppet, Tenzin. 

While slow in pace and pedantic at times with its prolonged teachings and explanations about Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, The Oldest Boy still is totally engrossing, intriguing, and enthralling.   Marin Theatre Company has created in every respect a tale of East meets West and lulls us into relaxing enough from our frenetic lives to take in its deep beauty and meaning.

Rating: 4 E’s

The Oldest Boy continues through October 4, 2015 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-388-5208.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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