Letting go of something held dearly is never easy. It brings with it hesitation and doubt, fueled by desire and other vices. While there is no singular theme at the heart of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Oldest Boy,” this concept and others pervade its story.
“The Oldest Boy” centers on the discovery that the three-year-old son of a young couple is actually a reincarnated Tibetan lama. The boy’s parents—referred to only as Mother and Father—are visited by a monk and lama from a Tibetan Buddhist temple and must decide whether or not to let their son Tenzin, The Oldest Boy, be taken and raised there.
Cynthia Levin, Producing Artistic Director for the Unicorn Theatre and director of this production, believes that Ruhl’s play explores more than just letting go. She believes that there are different resonating themes within the script, and that Mother serves as the audience’s vehicle to explore them.
Actor and musician Vi Tran, who played the role of Father, believed that the questions raised by Mother’s struggle compel the audience more than the play’s plot.
“How do we deal with loss? How do we overcome grief?” asked Tran. “How do we tackle concepts of faith, spirituality, and altruism when they become inconvenient to our comfort or our need to feel in control of our lives?”
The relationship between student and teacher is another prominent theme in “The Oldest Boy.” In the play, Mother meets Father following the funeral of her late teacher. There she expresses her inability to move on from his death and her feelings of hopelessness. This concept is also explored through the lama character who believes that Tenzin is actually his reincarnated teacher who passed away three years ago. This shared experience creates a bond between the two characters.
“The pain of losing someone or something is universal,” said Wai Yim, who portrayed the lama. “Whether it’s a teacher, a mother, a son or a home. We are all one.”
Levin knew that “The Oldest Boy” was something she wanted to direct without even reading the script. Reading about the production and seeing photos, she was drawn instantly towards it. This decision did not come without its consequences.
A fan of Ruhl’s plays, Levin recognizes that her scripts are untraditional, lacking instructions for set design or even staging for actors. As Levin put it, navigating through Ruhl’s plays is not easy, but all it takes is a plan.
Levin also expressed interest in bringing deeper understanding of foreign cultures to Kansas City.
“I always think ‘what is underrepresented in our community?’ I don’t think we have a shortage of plays about middle class, middle aged white people.”
Thanks to Levin, the Unicorn is the first theatre to produce “The Oldest Boy” since its debut in New York City at the Lincoln Center Theatre. Levin assured that if the Unicorn is producing a play, they will always be the first people in Kansas City to do so.
The decision to ensure that their production represented Buddhism and Tibetan culture as accurately as possible was made very early. Levin and the production crew went to the Rime Buddhist Center & Tibetan Institute of Studies at 700 W Pennway Street. There they sought the help of Lama Chuck Stanford, co-founder of the Rime Center.
Stanford took the crew on a tour of the Rime Center and provided the crew with information concerning Buddhist ceremonies and practices. One such practice was the act of “taking refuge,” in which someone who was not born into Buddhism can ascribe to the Buddhist faith.
“We looked at the temple and we looked at the shrines. We really wanted to get the flavor of the colors,” said Levin. “We wanted to get sort of the feel, the look, the color, the smell of Tibet.”
The dramaturg, Amanda Boyle, also composed a 55 page informational packet for the cast and crew which explained key aspects of the cultures explored in the play.
Ian Crawford, Costume Designer for “The Oldest Boy,” sourced traditional Tibetan clothing for the actors to wear in pursuit of further authenticity. The monk’s robes are composed of separate pieces known as the zen, dhonka, and shemdap. These robes were purchased from a Buddhist center in Ashville, North Carolina. All other traditional Tibetan clothing was purchased through the internet and produced by Tibetans in exile.
“Nothing was really purchased in town because there’s nothing in Kansas City,” said Crawford. “Nowhere in Kansas City can you get authentic Tibetan clothing.”
The actors and production crew prepared intensely for their roles in the play. The entire crew watched the documentary “Unmistaken Child” on the second day of rehearsal, which explores the concept of reincarnation. The documentary focuses primarily on monks’ search for their reincarnated teachers.
In addition to this, several of the actors learned to speak the Tibetan language for their roles. Luckily the cast worked with someone who spoke the language fluently, allowing them to go over each line one at a time.
Besides its exploration of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Ruhl’s play is unique in another significant aspect—its use of a bunraku puppet to portray Tenzin, the titular “Oldest Boy.” Working with esteemed puppet master Paul Mesner, Levin and the cast helped bring to life one of the most charming and heartwarming characters.
“We are insanely fortunate that we have a puppet master in this town [Mesner],” said Levin in a reverent tone. “Not every city has a world-class puppet master.”
Tenzin was operated onstage by two puppeteers – Alex Espy and Andi Meyer – while Espy provided the voice for Tenzin. According to Levin, what would normally take a few hours rehearsing with actors would instead take a few days rehearsing with the puppet. This proved challenging at first.
Mesner instructed the cast and crew to treat Tenzin as though he were a living, breathing being. Even during rehearsals he was treated with the same respect the actors would give one another.
“We all learn how he moves and behaves during rehearsals. Sometimes the puppet actually teaches you how he’d like to be handled, as if he has a soul,” said Yim. “It is very interesting. The puppet has its own propensities.”
“Basically, we just interacted with him like we would any other actor. We spoke our lines to him, not his puppeteers,” said Tran. “When we carried him or hugged him, we treated him with the care that we would give to a talented child actor, not an inanimate object.”
On the subject of Tenzin, Crawford said that designing a costume for a puppet was more difficult than someone would think. While it could be assumed that a puppet child would simply wear children’s clothes, this was not the case. Crawford had to tailor all of the clothes worn by Tenzin to fit as well as accommodate his controls.
Several of the actors possessed personal experiences which aided them in understanding their roles. Thomas Tong, who portrayed a monk, used to go to a Buddhist temple as a child.
“Seeing monks all dressed up and being patient and looking wise. I just tried to get the character down from what I remember,” said Tong. “Seeing these monks as they went through their Sunday prayers. They were nice and calm, as well as, fervent and caring.”
The character of the lama is driven by the search for his reincarnated teacher. Yim understood the relationship between teacher and student on a very personal level. He dedicated the show to his late ESL teacher, Kay Bowers. When he first came to America, Bowers was the one who helped him the most. He remembers her as caring and supportive and considered her a close friend. When he wanted to become an actor, she encouraged him to do so.
“I have the very first photo Kay and I took together on my dressing room table. Every night before I go onstage, I say a little prayer to her and say, ‘see you out there!’” said Yim. “I’d like to believe that she’s in the audience every night enjoying the show and that she’s proud of me.”
Tran probably had the most shared experiences with his character. In “The Oldest Boy,” Father is the son of a Tibetan exile, taken from his home country at a young age. The play also explores his struggles marrying an American woman.
“The tricky part of preparing for a role where there’s an overlap between you and your character is accepting those parts of yourself that are effective in portraying the role,” said Tran. “And recognizing the elements that are specific and unique to your character. For me, it was a matter of sifting through the research we did on Tibetan history to make sure that those details were layered authentically atop my own personal experiences.”
“The Oldest Boy” explores a variety of emotional themes—loss, acceptance, grieving, and relationships between parents and children as well as students and teachers. Through an ethnically influenced and accurately representative plot, Levin and her cast and crew at the Unicorn have created a production that will educate, inspire and move its audiences.
“When we have those folks out in the audience who are moved by the work we do, then we know we are doing something right,” said Tong. “And that makes me feel good as an actor. It makes me feel proud of my work.”
The Unicorn Theatre’s production of the “The Oldest Boy” will run until Sept. 20th. Tickets are available online at www.UnicornTheatre.org, by phone at 816-531-PLAY (7529) EXT. 10, or in person at the box office located at 3828 Main Street. For students on a budget, the Unicorn also holds “Pay What You Can” nights every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.