The Oldest Boy – A Lama?

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NY Theater Review Sandi Durell

 

Sara Ruhl’s latest unusual offering elucidates Buddhism, Tibetan culture, family, motherhood and love at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

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It may be well known that the Chinese, under Mao, performed an ethnic cleansing of over a million Tibetans, leaving only 14 monasteries in tact while looting and destroying over 6000. The Dalai Lama fled to India where many Tibetans followed and now live in exile in India, Nepal and the western world.

It is also the Buddhist belief that reincarnated lamas are born to take the place of those who die and so this is an imagined story of how a Rinpoche (precious one) is spirited away from family to take his rightful place in that tradition. Somewhere in America, we find a young Mother (Celia Keenan-Bolger, Tony nominee The Glass Menagerie), a bright intellectual on her own path to enlightenment, married to a Tibetan restaurant owner (James Yaegashi), known as ‘Father’ who are raising a 3 year old chosen son. The characters are generically named.

oldest-boyWhen a Lama (James Saito) and a Monk (Jon Norman Schneider) come to their home, there’s a sprightly conversation, sprinkled with levity, between them and Mother as they slowly unfold the reason for their visit – no, it’s not to eat in her husband’s delicious ethnic food restaurant (which they apparently did sometime prior), but to announce their intention to test, for authenticity, and then spirit their son Tenzin (a reincarnated Lama) away to a monastery for training.

There are lively discussions of religion, philosophy, faith and lack of, as the Lama and Monk put Tenzin through tests that only he could correctly pass if, in fact, he was a reincarnated Lama. “My book of prayers” announces Tenzin as he sees something familiar, easily passing the tests. By the way, Tenzin is a wooden puppet artistically operated by Ernest Abuba who also voices him (not entirely believable in his more manly voice) with chorus – Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura, Nami Yamamoto. It’s amusing to watch the hand-operated puppet jump onto a table, walk, kneel, embrace, albeit I would have preferred a real child.

We easily feel the heartbreak of Mother as she foresees Tenzin and her family’s destiny while Father has more easily resigned himself. All the while, there are intermittent phone calls with Mother’s mother and humorous quips that allow for chuckles of reality western style.

By Act 2, we are in India in the monastery and Mother is pregnant as she and Father live through Tenzin’s preparation for the ‘enthronement ceremony’ – a ritual of his reincarnation, portrayed musically and in dance, utilizing the back lit shadow box-like stage area above the floor (scenic design Mimi Lien) and wonderfully colorful Tibetan costumes (Anna Yavich) all sensitively lit by Japhy Weideman.

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, this interplay between cultures, emotions and philosophical differences bring an intelligent and sensitive understanding as these well cast actors engage in a little-known reality.

As a postscript: When I travelled to China, I had the opportunity to visit Tibet and monasteries giving me some insight into the culture and making this play more familiar.

 

“The Oldest Boy” – www.lct.org   212 239-6200, runs thru December 28th – running time: 2 hours

 

 

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