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REVIEW: Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy (Jungle Theater)

 

The Oldest Boy, which opened on Friday at the Jungle Theater, is in many ways emblematic of the Jungle’s first season under Artistic Director and show director Sarah Rasmussen. It is edgy, delves into themes and problems that have no easy answers, and plays with the audience’s sense of what happens. Immaculately performed, it neatly sidesteps the limitations of using child actors by having its titular character played by nuanced, emotive puppetry. The only people who appeared displeased with opening night were the walk-up ticket purchasers, who were shut out after the last tickets sold 30 minutes before curtain. (The performance was actually twice sold-out, as a number of subscriber tickets were returned for resale after it first soldout.)

Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy, which opened at Lincoln Center in 2014, has much thematically in common with other of her plays. If you’ve seen Dead Man’s Cellphone, you’ll recognize many aspects of the effusive but insecure heroine, the use of perception shifts, and the significant change in mood between Acts I and II. These are technical similarities; the plays are otherwise very different animals. Mother (an elegantly nuanced portrayal by Christina Baldwin) has quite the axe to grind with academia, which feels grating at times (the rants, not Baldwin; the character does have some justification). Most of the time, however, attention is on the larger narrative of a family caught up in the unusual circumstance of their son being named a Tibetan Lama at the age of 3.

In her notes for the play, Ruhl wrote “If possible a small chorus of traditional Tibetan dancers, preferably women. It could also be helpful to have live musicians who play traditional Tibetan music. If Tibetan actors are unavailable to play the Father, Monk, Lama, and The Oldest Boy, I put my trust in the collective imagination and in creative casting.” On the first three counts, the Jungle deserves a nod for following the playwright’s vision and pursuing authenticity; the use of live Tibetan music adds immeasurably to the atmosphere in Act II. On the last count, well, 98% there is pretty good.

Special recognition goes out to Masanari Kawahara’s puppetry depicting The Oldest Boy. This is an elegant and smoothly integrated creative solution to the logistical problems of sourcing Tibetan child actors in the Twin Cities (the original production used a puppet with three puppeteers), especially of this age. There is something of an uncanny valley in the first scenes with The Oldest Boy, but by the time Act II comes around this distraction has been carried by the sequence of events and vivid portrayal of a 3-year-old.

One of the most pleasant aspects of this show is the “is he/isn’t he” question that reverberates more in the audience’s mind than the characters. This is propelled in no small part by the stoic portrayal of Father by Randy Reyes; small gestures and expressions hint subtly at the character’s depth, so that an important Act II monologue is a natural unveiling, rather than a surprise. The narrative is also well-supported by the earnestness of Eric “Pogi” Sumangil as the Lama and Tsering Dorjee Bawa as the Monk, which more or less sweeps the family up in a tidal wave of events from which their world is rebuilt. The sets by Mina Kinukawa are sparse but functional, reinforcing the character focus, and the costumes by Sonya Berlovitz add little touches and flairs about the characters that help usher the audience into how they engage with the world.

This isn’t a show with too much exposition, and some of the places that it goes will surprise you.

 

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.
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