Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"The Oldest Boy" ☼ ☼ ☼

A great play carries you into another world, messes with your preconceptions, makes you first uncomfortable and then exultant as you figure out how you feel about this new world into which you've been allowed a two hour journey. Act One of Sarah Ruhl's "The Oldest Boy" does all of that, as the young mother, played exuberantly by Christine Albright, is presented with a terrible choice. As the intermission curtain falls we have no idea what she will do to protect her son, Tenzin. The problem is, we know exactly what we would do and we're pretty sure she's not going to listen to us.

Two Buddhist priests, one a lama (Jinn S. Kim) and one a monk (Wayne Lee), have come to an unnamed American city to seek out Tenzin, who is only three years old but has been identified by the monks as the reincarnation of their holy teacher. They wish to take the boy from his parents and bring him back to India to teach him to become a lama. To them, this is the noblest undertaking for any man. Tenzin's father (Kurt Uy), who is Tibetan, obviously sides with the monks, to his wife's horror and dismay.

Then comes Act Two. Time has passed and the mom is pregnant again and she has decided to allow Tenzin to go with the monks. The family is now in India, where the mom has her baby (in a scene stylized to the point of banality) and finally comes to her decision. This is where plot points and production decisions bog down the narrative. Does the little boy, who is represented by a puppet for most of the play, actually become one of the older monks...or his reincarnated earlier self…or...? Why does this American child, voiced by actor Tsering Dorjee, speak with a Tibetan accent? Is it true that we, as Westerners, who are said to treat our own parents as convenience items, utilizing them as baby-sitters then dumping them into old-folks homes when they are no longer useful, can never really comprehend the selfless ways of Tibetan Buddhists?

We love the boy puppet, as well as the intriguing decision to use puppetry in the first place (apparently Ruhl specifies puppet or marionette), and of course this is a Sarah Ruhl play so there are many meaningful lines, as well as a touching love scene over a sink filled with dirty dishes. If, as the mom says, "To say good morning is easy, to say good night is hard," then we must agree. This story is so involving that if they shore up the ending we, the audience, will find refuge in both.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Oldest Boy" Three Stars. This represents Four Stars for Act One and less for Act Two. Special credit to the production team here -- lights, music, staging and set, all brilliant.

"The Oldest Boy"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED Through October 11

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