When student audiences attend a matinee at Lincoln Center Theater, onstage hints of love and sex tend to elicit the most audible response. At this week’s lively, student-filled performance of The Oldest Boy, however, it was puppetry that proved transfixing. At this point in the production’s evolution, I think it can be safely revealed that the story’s three-year-old character, identified as a reincarnated lama, is represented by a handsome puppet, designed by the wizardly Matt Acheson.
As part of their three-part preparation for the performance, students from the three New York City public schools present at this particular matinee – High School of Fashion Industries, High School for Health Professions, and Marble Hill School for International Studies – had discussed puppetry. They had, in fact, had a chance to work with brown-paper, bunraku-like puppets. So it came as no surprise that several of the student questions in the matinee’s post-performance talkback – in which six of the show’s eight actors took part – involved puppetry.
One student posed a general question: why use a puppet instead of a child performer? While waiting for the actors to shed costumes and makeup and appear before for the talkback, Alexandra López, LCT’s Associate Director of Education, who coordinates the student effort along with Kati Koerner, LCT’s Hiltz Family Director of Education, indicated that it would be difficult to train a real-life three-year-old to sit and stand as required for a professional production. She spoke from experience: she herself has a three-year-old.
Ernest Abuba, who voices the oldest boy, elaborated. “The character was conceived by Sarah” – playwright Sarah Ruhl – “as a puppet. It’s been quite an experience in rehearsal and performance to figure out the working of the legs and the head. We had to play around a lot to get things right.”
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays the boy’s Mother, added: “That puppet can’t speak about what it feels. That’s not something I’d experienced before as an actor: having to interact with a non-human, human character.”
Another student wondered why the production didn’t use a ventriloquist’s approach to the puppet. Keenan-Bolger responded: “Early on, we experimented with a marionette. We tried hard to think of the best puppet to use. The problem with a ventriloquist puppet is that his mouth is moving, and that means an audience has to use less imagination.”
Grappling with the concept of reincarnation, a student asked if the oldest boy, identified as a reborn lama, actually would assume the shape or body of the man he was reincarnating. Abuba and Keenan-Bolger explained that the tulku – a high-ranking lama who can choose his own rebirth – would have his own personality but would also have some of the memories and consciousness of the previous person. He wouldn’t be a carbon copy of the man who came before.
Finally, students wondered why Tibet was the focus of the production. Abuba explained that this was a question perhaps best answered by Ruhl, who, he mentioned, has a Tibetan nanny who inspired the project. James Yaegashi, meanwhile, who plays Father, said that Tibet was a wonderful subject because it required each of the actors to learn about the country based on their own background and traditions. “It’s been a huge help,” he explained, having in their midst the performer Tsering Dorjee, who has made a lifework of promoting and performing Tibetan artistic practice.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.