“The Oldest Boy” at Jungle Theater: Mother and Father, Meet your son, a Buddha

Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, Christina Baldwin, puppeteer Masanari Kawahara and Tsering Dorjee Bawa. Photo by Dan NormanBY ADAM M. SCHENCK

As the curtain draws, an actress sits in a meditation pose with her eyes closed. She tries to keep her eyes shut but the body interrupts consciousness. When actress Christina Baldwin gives in to the urge to scratch an itch, we see that “The Oldest Boy” will invite its audience to reflect on body and spirit.
Baldwin portrays a character named “Mother,” and Sarah Ruhl’s script takes a patient, subtle approach to themes of religion, parenthood, duty and attachment. This production instructs as much as it entertains.
The late 1990s saw a growing American interest in Tibet, with two major films on Tibetan Buddhism (“Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet”). The Dalai Lama won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and his life as an exile from his homeland (dominated by China) became legend. These events brought Tibetan Buddhism into our popular Western consciousness. We became aware that a young boy can be selected to be trained as a Tibetan Buddhist lama—as early as age 2.
In Ruhl’s script, a young boy is the reincarnation of a teacher in the lineage of the Buddha, and lamas find him somewhere in the world, establish him as an “old soul,” and take the boy from his family to be raised as a spiritual leader in a distant monastery.
That sounds appealing—unless it’s your kid. That’s the conflict in “The Oldest Boy,” directed by Sarah Rasmussen, who is lining up local theater hits as artistic director at Jungle Theater as well as the Guthrie’s “Sense and Sensibility” only a couple months ago.
Educational stories too often bore an audience. It’s a testament to the cultural depth created by this production that this play does just the opposite. In all honesty I cannot speak to the cultural authenticity of the script since I am no expert on Tibetan culture, but this production is enlightening, particularly for Minneapolitans who have likely met immigrants from Tibet.
One can easily imagine the internal conflict between Mother’s earnest interest in her husband’s Tibetan roots (Randy Reyes portrays Father) and her maternal instinct. The character Mother lives the challenge of an adopted duty as she struggles to integrate herself into a culture different from her own.
It’s a conflict that garners your interest and makes this production’s instructional substance less like medicine and more like a transformative spiritual moment, like standing on the precipice of the Grand Canyon.
Tsering Dorjee Bawa and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil portray the monks who propose to bring the boy across the world to become a spiritual leader. In addition to Baldwin’s yeowoman’s work as Mother, puppeteer-actor Masanari Kawahara shines in this production.
Since I had seen Kawahara’s work in Pillbury Theater’s “The Children,” I already had suspension of disbelief enough to enjoy a puppet as a child. As the play progresses, the puppetry allows for a spiritual climax as the Boy and his reincarnated Old Soul meld together, with Mother reacting to the unthinkable act of giving one’s young boy away to the world.
The support crew took great care with verisimilitude. Mina Kinukawa handled set design, and costumes are from Sonya Berlovitz. Karin Olson’s lighting matches the reflective, spiritual space this production creates.
Good art instructs and entertains. It speaks volumes that every production I have seen from Sarah Rasmussen finds the crux of the story, builds characters, and invites reflection from the theatergoer. “The Oldest Boy” excels in all aspects, so I recommend it wholeheartedly.
This production runs to Dec. 18 at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Find jungletheater.com for more information.

Reach Adam M. Schenck at schencka@gmail.com. Becky Halat contributed to the writing of this review.

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