The Jungle Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is an incredibly breathtaking and mesmerizing performance. Mother (Christina Baldwin) is a woman who has given up on her PhD program after the death of her teacher. She cares for her son, Tenzien (Mansanari Kawahara) and, while home with him one day, is greeted by a Buddhist lama and monk (Eric “Pogi” Sumangil and Tsering Dorjee Bawa) who appear to visit her husband (Randy Reyes). However, when they meet Tenzin, they believe him to be the reincarnation of a lama and one of their teachers. Mother is terrified of losing him but, after being tested, Tenzin correctly chooses the objects belonging to the former lama and shows knowledge of being the former lama. Mother is encouraged to let him travel to India, where he will be taught and trained. Dealing with her own loss and struggling to understand her own spirituality as well as what it means to be a mother, Mother as wella s Father journey to India to find Tenzin’s new home.
This show is really beautiful. Tenzin is portrayed as a puppet (designed and constructed by Mansanari Kawahara) in order to show the shift between child self and reincarnated self, which makes for some poignant shifts onstage. The world that is created through the lighting (designed by Karin Olson, set (by Mina Kinukawa), sound (by Sean Healey), and costuming (by Sonya Berlovitz) is absolutely incredible and provides a powerful environment. Because this story deals with spirituality and ideas of reincarnation, there’s a very reverent, almost holy feeling created in some of the scenes, aided by traditional dancing and music performed onstage by actors (including Yeshi Samdup). Sarah Ruhl is known for her magical realism in her writing and this play perfectly captures that, both in the breaking down of the forth wall with the audience (seen at the beginning during Mother’s meditation and during Mother and Father’s dialogue about how they met), in the use of silence, the use of puppetry, and the topic itself. I wasn’t sure how a non-Buddhist would approach the subject of reincarnation but it feels very elegant in Ruhl’s hand and even more so in this superb production which strives to integrate the local Tibetan community.
I really enjoyed this play with its focus on meditation and mindfulness. It feels wonderful to step back and breathe (especially at the end of a stressful election year) and remember different ways of living that are more calm and focused. This play also captures a certain mystery about children – how they seem to know things that they seem too young to have learned – and plays with the idea that maybe there’s a more spiritual reason for this.
The Oldest Boy is written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Sarah Rasmussen. It is playing now through December 18th at Jungle Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Jungle’s website.