Culture clash in San Diego Rep’s ‘Oldest Boy’

Local staging of Sarah Ruhl play pits American mother’s concept of family against Tibetan Buddhist tradition

By Michael James Rocha, 11 November 2015, San Diego Union-Tribune

There’s something about working with Sarah Ruhl’s plays that makes Sam Woodhouse extremely giddy.

“It’s delightful to swim in her imagination,” said Woodhouse, the San Diego Repertory Theatre artistic chief who’s directing the Southern California premiere of Ruhl’s 2014 play “The Oldest Boy.” “The scale and scope of her imagination … that’s what ultimately I find fascinating and attractive. She has a way of blending reality and fantasy, history with fiction, comedy with drama. Her work operates in a seamless and revelatory way.”

Woodhouse isn’t alone in his assessment. The Illinois-born Ruhl is a well-regarded playwright, having burst onto the national stage with “The Clean House,” the 2004 comedy that made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She was also a Tony Award nominee and Pulitzer finalist in 2010 for “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” And in 2006, she was a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient.

‘The Oldest Boy’

When: In previews through Tuesday. Opens Wednesday and continues through Dec. 6.

Where: Lyceum Stage, San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Tickets: $33-$66; active military, teacher and senior discounts available.

Phone: (619) 544-1000

“The Oldest Boy” has what Woodhouse calls a “jaw-dropping premise”: A young American mother (Amanda Sitton), married to a Tibetan man (Napoleon Tavale), meets two strangers — a monk and a lama (Christopher Aguilar and Albert Park) — who want to meet her 3-year-old son, Tenzin. They believe her son is the reincarnation of a high Buddhist teacher.

It’s a story about faith and family set against the backdrop of a pageantry-filled production, but “the heart of the story really is who does the child belong to,” said Woodhouse, who has also directed “In the Next Room” and “The Clean House” at the Rep. “It’s about the American sense of identity and control and what’s mine, versus the great Tibetan tradition of sharing a child with the world.”

“The Oldest Boy” opened off-Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater in November of last year in a production directed by San Diego regular Rebecca Taichman, who directed “Twelfth Night” at the Old Globe this past summer and is currently directing “Indecent” at the La Jolla Playhouse (a world-premiere work she co-created with Paula Vogel). “The Oldest Boy” pits an American mother’s concept of family against Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s in that juxtaposition that Woodhouse, as director, finds bliss.

“Ironically,” Woodhouse said, “finding the perfect balance between the story’s pageantry and intimacy … trying to sort through that to find that human moment — that’s what’s so gratifying and the most challenging.”

That constant search for humanity, as it straddles two disparate cultures, paints a delicate yet colorful theatrical tapestry — one that features dance and music, cowbells and masks, rituals and ceremonies.

“The ultimate goal,” Woodhouse said, “is to tell the story in the most complete yet seductive way. With a Sarah Ruhl play, you get to revel in the bounty of theatrical form styles and possibilities. It’s a great theatrical banquet.”

And for that banquet, Woodhouse has quite a diverse roster of guests: “The cast is an amazing, diverse group: Caucasian American, American Samoan, Korean American, Chinese American, Filipino American, and, of course, Tibetan,” with the latter being Tsering Dorjee Bawa, in the title role of “Oldest Boy.”

Bawa was born in Toe Bawa, Tibet, and has a master’s degree in Tibetan performing arts from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, home to the Dalai Lama. He was in the off-Broadway production of “The Oldest Boy” as well as the play’s West Coast premiere at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley.

“Tsering is a fountain of knowledge, not about only about Tibetan culture but performance arts itself,” Woodhouse said. “He’s a dancer, an actor and an all-around artist. He brings the knowledge of traditional Tibetan performing arts … that brings authenticity to the whole experience.”


San Diego REPertory Theatre's Co-Founder and Artistic Director SAM WOODHOUSE and The Oldest Boy Actor, Choreographer, and Cultural Consultant TSERING DORJEE BAWA sit down ​with KUSI's ELIZABETH ALVAREZ to discuss The Oldest Boy.

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