Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Poignant "Oldest Boy"

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. - Dalai Lama

Photo by Dan Norman. 
I'm pretty sure that a couple decades from now, our kids are going to ask what we were doing last night, on the election of the 45th President. Where were you? Where was I?

At the theater.

In this long, unending, demoralizing slog of an extended campaign season, theater has been a wonderful refuge for me. It's such a positive place to immerse yourself when it feels like things are falling apart. You can escape into new worlds - new, fresh stories; places where all are accepted; places where problems can be resolved peacefully through conversation.

There was no better refuge for me last night than seeing The Oldest Boy, a lovely new play by Sarah Ruhl that is closing out this year's season at the Jungle Theater. The Oldest Boy follows a white Mother and Tibetan Buddhist Father as they learn that their son Tenzin, all of three years old, is a reincarnated Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist faith. Both parents struggle between the idea of letting their son go to be trained as a monk in his heritage, and wanting to keep him in America with them as a normal American child. The play is filled with tension between duty and freedom of choice, the difficulties of interracial relationships (particularly when kids are involved), the importance of passionate love, and the meaning and beauty to be found in true sacrifice.
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them. - Dalai Lama
This cast is small and intimate, making the show feel as if you're a part of their family too. Christina Baldwin narrates the show as Mother and is extraordinary in the role. She is clear but soft, emotional but strong, and her tearful journey through accepting her son as he is and his place in his culture is moving and profound. Baldwin's tender portrayal guides all of us through the path of becoming open minded towards other cultures, towards raising our children with freedom instead of fear, and truly loving by letting go. It was the perfect antidote to the nasty election raging outside of the theater, and it gives me much hope for the hundreds of people who will see Baldwin's nuanced, vibrant performance.

Randy Reyes is shy and calm as Father. He perfectly shows his character as the bridge - between cultures, between old and new worlds, between the duties of a father and the duties of an acolyte. Reyes is always enjoyable and he grounds Baldwin's performance here. Eric Sumangil is lively and heartwarming as Tenzin's Lama. You can't help but think of the Dalai Lama as Sumangil quietly spreads his smile across the stage, and his performance is gentle and pleasant.
We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves. - Dalai Lama
It's also impossible to talk about the cast without mentioning two unique elements: a Monk, played by Tibetan cultural consultant Tsering Dorjee Bawa; and Tenzin, the reincarnated Lama-son who is actually played by a puppet (who is in turn performed by Masanari Kawahara). Bawa serves several roles in the show, not just as an actor but also a dancer, and his clear insight into the world of Tibet is strewn throughout the settings, costumes, scents (yes this play has a smell!), and more. Bawa's help makes you feel like you are truly in Tibet, and lends a richness to the setting that really enhances the performances. Kawahara is wonderful with the puppet Tenzin. I'm not normally a puppet fan, but Tenzin here is large enough to see clearly and feels very lifelike thanks to Kawahara's youthful performance. This puppet interaction really worked for me somehow and left the focus of the story to be on Mother and Father and their journey as Tenzin's parents, rather than the distraction an actual three year old would have provided on stage.

The set and costumes also have to be mentioned, because they are phenomenal. The first half of the play is focused inside of the family's home in America. It feels familiar but trendy, and comfy enough that I could see myself climbing into it to stay for a while. This is removed in the second act for an absolutely gorgeous set placed in a Buddhist monastery in India. The colorful beams of the temple, prayer flags, smooth floors and vibrant fabrics are totally mesmerizing, as is the light scent of incense as it wafts from the stage into the audience. It is transportive and really lovely - definitely my favorite visual aspect of this show.
Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. - Buddha
This show really was so timely for me, particularly its Buddhist themes. So much of The Oldest Boy focuses on reincarnation and the cyclical nature of life, as well as the benefits of learning to truly let go and let things be as they are. It was a gorgeous reminder that we are more successful and happier when we live in a world with our palms spread wide open, approaching others with generosity - not with fists clenched to keep everything to ourselves.

I really needed that reminder (I think we all do right now). And aside from its beautiful moral, The Oldest Boy is also simply stunningly original. It has a cultural blend that is fresh and modern and a gentle introduction into Tibetan culture. I loved this original script, the second by Sarah Ruhl in this season at the Jungle. I'm new to her work and so grateful for Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen for choosing to produce her plays; three cheers for doing more original pieces and supporting more women in theater in all positions.

The Oldest Boy closes on December 18; for more information or to buy tickets, please click on this link.