BWW Review: THE OLDEST BOY Takes a Journey Through Culture at the Unicorn Theatre
Monks and Lamas and puppetry, oh my! THE OLDEST BOY opens the 2015-2016 season for the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. Cynthia Levin directs the Unicorn production with puppet direction by Paul Mesner, which runs through September 20.
Sarah Ruhl wrote THE OLDEST BOY, which takes the audience on a humorous and intriguing cultural journey from America to the Tibetan Mountains. The journey begins when two Tibetan monks visit an American family, believing their three-year-old-son is the reincarnation of a high Buddhist Lama. Confronted with overwhelming evidence to prove the monk's declarations the mother and father must decide whether to abide by the traditions of the Buddhist or deny them access to the boy.
The monks tell the couple, the father a Tibetan born American restaurant owner, they must take the child back to Tibet to teach him and train him in his true destiny as a high Lama. The mother having given up on her own religious upbringing is at first reluctant to grant the monks their wish. It is only after the three-year-old provides compelling truth of the reincarnation that she relents and the couple accompany the monks to the monastery in Tibet.
Ruhl's play at times is intriguing as to the rites of the Buddhist and the possibility of reincarnation. Climbing onto the couch or holding onto his father or mother the puppetry is so wonderful that at times you forget it is not a real boy. Though the play is entertaining and dotted with numerous moments of humor, it is somewhat disappointing in its predictability. When the cast announces the play has ended I felt cheated out of closure with the abrupt ending.
Katie Kalahurka makes a triumphant return to the Unicorn as the boy's mother in an outstandingly natural performance. The audience can feel the pride of the mother, the protective nature of the mother, and when she relinquishes the boy to the monks, the pain of the mother. She owns the part with her body language, voice inflection, and facial expressions. Kalahurka has previously appeared in NICKEL AND DIME at the Unicorn and with Spinning Tree Theatre, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and New Theatre among others.
Wai Yim in his debut at the Unicorn gives a stellar performance as A Lama, who believes the boy is the reincarnation of his own former teacher. Yim's delivery of a quiet yet powerful performance is realistic and captivating at the same time.
Alex Espy and Andi Meyer are wonderful as the puppeteers for the boy. Espy in his Unicorn debut provides the voice and later the image of the boy's spirit. Meyer has previously appeared at the Unicorn in 9 PARTS OF DESIRE, DISTRACTED, and THE WAITING ROOM among others. Vi Tran returns to the Unicorn as the father of the boy and Thomas Tong makes his debut at the Unicorn as A Monk.
On Friday, September 4 at 6:30 p.m., the Unicorn presents a Meditation Workshop & Exploring the World of THE OLDEST BOY. Matt Rice and Sergio Moreno, meditation instructors from the Rime Buddhist Center, will lead audience members in the serenity of meditation. Immediately following the meditation Amanda Boyle will present artifacts, cultural objects, books, and image research for the production. The play begins at 8 p.m. following the presentation.
On Friday, September 11 at 6:30 p.m., the audience is invited to Explore the World of THE OLDEST BOY & Puppetry Presentation. Boyle will again present her production research, followed by puppet director Paul Mesner and puppet designer Mike Horner on the Jerome Stage. They will treat the audience with a look behind the scenes at the creation of Tenzin, the three-year-old boy.
On Friday, September 18 at 6:30 p.m., the Unicorn presents Experience the Culture of Tibetan Monks. The theater will welcome a group of Tibetan Monks to Kansas City at this free event. The Drepung Goman monks will treat audience members to their beautiful sand mandala artwork, mesmerizing chants, and a blessing of the theatre.
THE OLDEST BOY continues at the Unicorn through September 20. Purchase tickets by calling the box office at 816-531-7529 extension 10 or visit the Unicorn Theatre website. Photo by Cynthia Levin courtesy of the Unicorn Theatre.