Dancers, puppets, lamas star in ‘Oldest Boy’ at San Diego Repertory Theater

What if you were a young American mother and one day a couple of Tibetan monks came to your door, told you your 3-year-old son was the reincarnation of a revered Buddhist lama, and asked you to let them take him to their monastery in India, so he could be raised as the spiritual teacher they knew him to be? That’s the central question of “The Oldest Boy,” a luminous new production coming to San Diego Repertory Theater Nov. 12.

Written by multi-award-winner Sarah Ruhl, it’s a far cry from the playwright’s “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play,” staged by the Rep in 2011, though it does sound a lot like “Little Buddha,” a 1993 film by Bernardo Bertolucci, in which a Seattle couple is visited by Tibetans who think their son may be a reincarnated lama. But “The Oldest Boy” has a style and approach all its own.

For one thing, the three-year-old boy is played by a puppet, worked by a pair of dancing puppeteers and voiced by a Tibetan actor/singer/dancer/musician who is, in fact, the Oldest Boy.

Tsering Dorjee Bawa, born in Tibet, raised in India, and based in the Bay Area, was an integral part of the New York production at Lincoln Center Theater last year, appearing onstage, and acting as a cultural consultant who made sure they got all the Tibetan details right. Fresh from playing the Oldest Boy at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, he is reprising the role here, along with his continuing role as cultural consultant.

Ruhl, who, besides being a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Tony nominee, and this year’s most-produced female playwright in the country, is also the mother of three children, has said that the play was inspired by conversations with a longtime babysitter, originally from Tibet. After recounting her harrowing escape from Chinese–occupied Tibet to India, the woman shared a more recent story about Tibetan friends of hers in Boston who were visited by Buddhist monks and informed that their son was a reincarnated lama. They were now living in India, where the boy was in a monastery, being raised as a Buddhist priest.

The story made Ruhl consider what it meant to be a mother wanting the best for her child, but torn between personal attachment and spiritual commitment. And so “The Oldest Boy” was born.

Director Sam Woodhouse said Ruhl is one of his favorite writers. “She’s profound, whimsical, intimate and expansive,” he said. “And ‘The Oldest Boy’ is a fascinating, extraordinary piece of work. The story it tells and the way she tells it make for rich, complex, delightful theater.”

He called the play “funny, mysterious, magical, beautiful and exotic.” Can’t beat that. It’s a meditation on loving and letting go with gorgeous costumes (some from a Tibetan Cultural Center in the Bay Area), ethnic dance, gongs, bells, drums, masks and puppetry. Plus, it’s a chance to learn something about Buddhism, and the resilience and beauty of Tibetan culture. Sounds like a winning combination for the REP and audiences too.

••• IF YOU GO: “The Oldest Boy” plays Nov. 12-Dec. 6, 2015 on the Lyceum Stage, San Diego REPertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego. Tickets: $33-$66. Students, $20. (619) 544-1000.

••• RELATED EVENTS: Puppets and Their Masters, 6 p.m. Nov. 15, members of the San Diego Guild of Puppetry demonstrate the use of puppets in modern theater, moderated by REP Technical Director Mark Robertson. Meet the Artists: Nov. 20, after the 8 p.m. show, join the cast for an open discussion, hosted by REP Casting Director Jacole Kitchen. Buddhism 101: Meet the Lama, 6 p.m. Dec. 2, Lama Lhanang Rinpoche, who is both a spiritual teacher and an artist, will give an introduction to Buddhism through his paintings, on view in the Lyceum Gallery.