by Eugene Paul
Ruhl, whose bewitching, off-beat plays, The Clean House and In The
Next Room both produced by Lincoln Center, resulted in the commissioning of
a new play by Ruhl, has responded at last despite a spate of other works that
have taken her precious time. The Oldest Boy is that curious result,
with its shaky focus on Tibetan Buddhism. Lincoln Center has mounted an
extraordinarily elaborate production – in concept – for the raw, simple story
that has the effect of turning it into a modern fairy tale, an exotic fable
whose emotional impact has been stolen by the telling. Yet – how else to
tell? Things like this don’t happen in America.
to R) Celia Keenan-Bolger and James Yaegashi
in a largish, American city, young, fey, school girlish Mother
Celia Keenan-Bolger), barefoot, begins a lotus, meditating Yoga posture on the
floor of her living room, then, with a don’t- bother- me look at us, the
audience, which instantly sweeps us into beguiled attention, turns her back and
faces the back wall. She starts over. Visionary set designer Mimi Lien has
given us a long, veiled window stretching across that back wall from one side
of the stage to the other, high above the large circle of the floor on which
young Mother sits. Why?, we briefly wonder.
two monks, (Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito) in red, Tibetan robes, have
come to the door. Mother is puzzled but welcoming; she is married to young,
sturdily handsome Father (fine James Yaegashi), a Tibetan. They met cute, fell
in love, eloped. They have a little boy, Tenzin. He’s three years old. The
monks know. That is why they’re here.
Keenan-Bolger, James Saito, and the company photos by T.Charles
a devout Buddhist, comes home from his small, successful Tibetan restaurant, in
awe of the guests in his house. Who wish to see his son. Father, honored,
brings the boy to them. And it is at this point that Art yields to artifice.
The three year old boy is a well dressed marionette manipulated by two black
robed puppeteers, Nami Yamamoto and Takemi Kitamura. The boy’s voice and
presence is performed by elderly Ernest Abuba, in high ranking Buddhist monk’s
garb. As splendidly graceful as the three of them are in conveying the boy, we
have crossed the line from everyday, unusual reality to everyday, usual fairy
tale. Now, the story telling becomes masterful. Or not.
is thrilled but leery. This is far out of her American experience. The older
monk, actually a lama, explains in kindly, authoritative tones, that they
believe that boy is the reincarnation of his, the lama’s, great teacher, a
Rinpoche, a “precious one”. The child recognizes him and blesses him. Father
is overcome with awe. Mother is desperately skeptical. The monks wish to take
the boy to Dharamsala in India to train him, educate him. Mother should be
thrilled. She has been trying to learn the path to Buddhahood. For the boy,
however, it means eighteen years of study, All those 227 rules. All those
is he, indeed, the reincarnation of the beloved Rinpoche? They must test him.
Mother, already torn, reluctantly agrees to their tests. Which the boy
unfailingly passes. Father and the monks bow to the boy. Mother faints.
Rebecca Taichman has her work cut out for her. She draws on all her
resources. Playwright Ruhl does not follow the rules, she tells her story and
it’s up to the magicians in the theater to make it happen. Such challenges
become electrifying if they succeed. Taichman opens wide the great, long
window in the back wall. It becomes a shadow box stage. It fills with designer
Tien’s fifty foot impression of the landscape of Dharamsala, painted with light
by designer Japhy Weideman. Taichman offers us the music of Dharamsala,
performed by Tsering Doree, on his high stage. He sweeps into fantastic
costume for the ceremony of the installation of the boy, Tenzin, on the throne
of the Rinpoche. A great staircase unfolds. Dancers appear. Down below,
Mother, pregnant with her second child, waits, unhappily. What will happen to
admire, you enjoy fairy tales, remembering how you used to want so much to believe
in them. With Celia Keen-Bolger in the story you believe in her so much you
want all the rest to be believable as it is for her, the marvelous one, the
true center of our tale. She and James Yaegashi, Father, must create belief.
He is her counterpart. It is his belief in the boy that’s necessary. Ernest
Abuba as the voice and the spirit of the boy is a pure fairy tale character; no
child speaks with his gravitas and that’s the way it should be. I was quite
taken with James Saito’s conviction and sweetness as a Lama.
Costume designer Anita Yavich stretches beautifully to hit all the right notes
in dressing her company, from the everyday to the fantastical. Everyone has
risen to the challenge of bringing playwright Sarah Ruhl’s work before us in
spite of – or because of? – its shortcomings. Fairy tales don’t all have to
live happily ever after. Lastly: why does no one ask about the title?
Oldest Boy. At
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Tickets: $87. 212-239-6200. 2hrs 15
min. Thru Dec 28.