Marin Theatre Co. meditates on Ruhl’s poignant Boy

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Kurt Uy (left, as Father) and Christine Albright (as Mother) interact with their 3-year-old son, Tenzin, a puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), Jed Parsario and Melvign Badiola in the Marin Theatre Company production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy. Below: Mother and son have a moment in India. Photos by Kevin Berne

The plays of Sarah Ruhl are mightily appealing in their intelligence, sensitivity, beauty and depth. From Dead Man’s Cell Phone to Eurydice (now at Shotgun Players) to In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Ruhl makes the ordinary extraordinary and gives poetic voice to thoughtful, troubled lives that have a great deal to offer.

Now making its West Coast debut at Marin Theatre Company, Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is in some ways very conventional: a well-heeled mother and father in the United States are conflicted about the education of their young son. But the circumstances surrounding this conflict are quite extraordinary. Their 3-year-old has been deemed an incarnate lama, the reincarnated soul of a “tulku” or high-ranking lama. Two monks arrive from India (where so many Tibetan Buddhists live in exile from their conflicted homeland) with the news, and the parents must decide if they will relinquish their son to life in a monastery on the other side of the world.

This news is perhaps more shocking to the mother (Christine Albright), who was raised Catholic in Ohio and has been a spiritual wanderer since, than it is to the father (Kurt Uy), a Tibetan who grew up in India and now operates a popular restaurant in an unspecified American city.

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With the surprise arrival of a monk (Wayne Lee) and a lama (Jinn S. Kim), it quickly becomes clear that there is little doubt that the child is the reincarnation of the lama’s former teacher (who died three years previously), so the parents must decide how they will proceed. For a mother who is practicing attachment parenting, this is a jolt to be sure.

Ruhl doesn’t really spend much time with the “is he or isn’t he” issue of the child’s reincarnation, and the parents don’t fight much about the fate of their child. So there’s not a whole lot of conflict in this play, but there is a whole lot of feeling. When the action shifts to India, there’s also tremendous beauty in the ritual we see (Collette Pollard’s set is gorgeous, as are the costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and the lights by Jeff Rowlings).

At the heart of the story is a little boy, Tenzin, represented by a bunraku-style puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa) (who also provides the choreography), who provides the voice, and Melvin Badiola and Jed Parsario, who give astonishing expression to his body (the fantastic puppet is by Jesse Mooney-Bullock). There wasn’t one moment in this two-hour play when I didn’t feel the reality of the child, even though he was an obvious theatrical contrivance. That has a lot to do with the artistry of the puppeteers, Ruhl’s script and Albright’s strong central performance.

Director Jessica Thebus pulls nuanced, naturalistic performances from her actors, and that keeps the play grounded in reality, even when Ruhl stretches credibility in Act 2. We experience this story from the perspective of Mother, and Albright is a powerful focal point as we see her using her considerable intellectual abilities (she’s a literature professor, adjunct as she’d point out) to try and open up her spirituality and to the hardest thing a parent has to do: let go of a child. As she points out, “The cruel animal fact of motherhood is bigger than any idea.”

The play and this stunning production never lose sight of that, and The Oldest Boy turns out to be one of the more moving theatrical experiences I’ve had for a while.

Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy continues an extended run through Oct. 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Mill Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Empty Nesters explores a grand marital canyon

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John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a married couple at a crossroads in Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, part of the 19th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at the Thick House. Photos courtesy of

A marriage heads over a cliff, literally, in Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, a co-production of PlayGround and Virago Theatre Company and part of PlayGround’s 19th annual Festival of New Works.

Luckily, the cliff in question is on the western rim of the Grand Canyon, and there happens to be a popular tourist spot called Skywalk that allows visitors to make a u-shaped jaunt on a glass walkway, with the canyon floor more than 3,000 feet below them.

The visitors making this trip are Frances and Greg, played by real-life husband and wife, Pamela Gaye Walker and John Walker. They have just dropped off their young child, a daughter, at college. Their older child, a son, is a college junior, which means that when they return to their Los Angeles home, that home will be what they call in the parenting business, an empty nest. “We have two kids out of the house,” Greg says. “But somehow they cost twice as much.”

While waiting in line for the glass-bottom trek, amid a lot of familiar-sounding squabbling of longtime marrieds, Frances drops a bomb that throws this little Arizona sojourn into a whole different light.

San Francisco playwright Groenveld offers three distinct chapters in this tale of a day in the life of a marriage at a crossroads. The first is at the canyon’s rim. The second is in a busy café, and the third is in a nearby hotel room. Each section delves deeper into the nature of this marriage, which actually seems to be a sturdy marriage built on love and companionship and not a lot of excess drama. At play’s end, just over an hour after it began, Groenveld makes a bold shift in his storytelling that turns Frances and Greg into characters in their own story as they recount a seemingly unimportant few minutes that turns out to be much more vital than they realized.

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Directed by Amy Glazer, The Empty Nesters has a natural rhythm that subtly builds tension and deepens the connection between husband and wife, thus raising the stakes. Married 25 years, Frances and Greg have fallen into distinct patterns of disengagement with each other. She has focused primarily on work and the kids (mostly the kids). He has focused on work and sports (mostly “SportsCenter,” the Dodgers, the Lakers and televised poker tournaments). Now that it’s just them again, they have a big readjustment to make.

They acknowledge that they knew this time would come, but it came more quickly than they realized, with the surprise being an unexpected, unfamiliar and uncomfortable stretch of mid-life without children and retirement still years away. We’ve seen bickering couples with faltering marriages before, but this couple feels more grounded in reality.

It’s never a sure thing that hiring a married couple to play a married couple is going to work in the characters’ favor, but here, under Glazer’s sure directorial hand, there’s a big payoff. The Walkers give us recognizable types – he’s whiny and a little clueless, she’s constantly annoyed and feeling unseen. But Groenveld takes us beyond those façades, and the Walkers open up the emotional lives of these spouses with warmth and compassion. It’s also helpful that there is abundant humor. They’re going through a rough patch, but they both get off a few good laugh lines every now and then.

Once we’re into the motel room scene, it’s easy to empathize with Frances and Greg – there’s no real bad guy…other than time and marriage (or the challenge of) itself. There’s a kind of sexual tension hovering over the scene – not the good kind – and you begin to see how they could easily break apart at this point. But you also sense the depth of their connection and feel the enormity of what they have to lose. That’s what gives The Empty Nesters its edge and makes it feel much heftier than its brief running time.

Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters continues through June 14 as part of the19th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-992-6677 or visit

Short sweet frolic on the PlayGround

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Michael Phillis (in the refrigerator) and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White’s Frigidaire, one of seven 10-minute plays in Best of Playground 15 at the Thick House. Below: Phillis and Rinabeth Apostol in Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body. Photos by mellopix performance

In the spirit of PlayGround’s annual 10-minute play festival, I’m going to attempt to write a 10-minute review.

The time is 10:40am. Start the clock.

The joy of a short play festival is the utter diversity in style, tone and voice. You can have what amounts to a sketch comedy bumping up against muscular drama, an intriguing fragment or a surprising burst of poetry. All of that happens and more in Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays at the Thick House. The seven plays presented represent the cream of the PlayGround playwriting process, which runs from October through March. A pool of 36 writers is given a topic and then asked to write a 10-minute play on a chosen theme. The best of those plays are given staged readings, and then the best of that bunch makes it to this festival.

Of the seven shows now on display, I can tell you my three clear favorites.

1. Arisa White’s Frigidaire surprises and delights with its twist on the coming out story. A domineering mother (Holli Hornlien) desperately wants her son (Michael Phillis) to be gay. She even goes so far as to force him into the arms of a priest known for his predilection for young boys. But the young man isn’t having it. His mother’s forceful ways – she says it’s her way of building his character – have sent him ’round the bend. He comes home from the latest forced encounter and barricades himself in the fridge. Director Jon Tracy‘s production is funny and powerful.

2. Eveyln Jean Pine’s See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. Takes a familiar scenario – two homeless buddies drinking and arguing – and makes it lyrical and poignant. Nicky (Jomar Tagatac), the younger guy, is a heavy drinker, but all the alcohol can’t quite obscure his hope for a better, more meaningful life. Sammy (David Cramer) has been on the streets too long. His hope doesn’t extend much beyond looking at the rain from the inside of a warm room for a change. Nicky’s latest burst of enthusiasm concerns a quote – he thinks it’s by Jack Kerouac, but it’s really by Eugene O’Neill – and if he cuts up the words of the quote and draws them randomly from a bag, the words create poetry and visions of the future. As directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Pine’s piece is gritty and beautiful.


3. Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body also takes a familiar scenario – two teenagers break into a church for purposes of mischief and, if all goes well, making out. For Cole (Phillis), the escapade doesn’t really amount to much more than swiping some wine and coaxing his partner in crime up to a cozy nook. But for Sophie (Rinabeth Apostol), the church and its rituals actually mean something. Susie Damilano’s direction and the actors’ shapr performances create palpable tension – and heat.

OK. Stop the clock. It’s 10:50. I’m breaking the rules and extending my time long enough to mention that the festival also includes Katie May’s cute Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero: A Feminist Fairy Tale; Jonathan Luskin’s Ecce Homo, a tribute to the durability of vaudevillians; Mandy Hodge Rizvi’s ambitious Escapades: A ballet with dialogue, or a dance through time and memory; and Brady Lea’s musical Calling the Kettle, with music by Christopher Winslow.

It’s all thoroughly enjoyable and nicely produced. Time spent on this PlayGround is always time spent with intriguing new writers from whom we’ll be hearing more in the future.


Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays continues through May 29 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 415-992-6677 or visit

You should also check out PlayGround’s staged readings of new plays at the Thick House. Still to come are Stiff Competition by Cass Brayton (2pm, May 15); A Marriage by Tom Swift (7pm, May 16); Book Club! The Musical by Geetha Reddy (2pm, May 22); Cristina Walters by Malachy Walsh (7pm, May 23); and Valley of Sand by Trevor Allen (2pm, May 29).


Trevor Allen takes a Roadtrip

There’s bad news aplenty in the world, so it’s always nice to discover some bright spots of good news, especially in the theater world.

Trevor AllenSan Francisco playwright Trevor Allen, who had a sizable hit last fall with his adaptation of Frankenstein, received a walloping dose of good news the other day. PlayGround’s New Play Production Fund chose his play Lolita Roadtrip to receive a $15,000 grant for production at San Jose Stage Company next season.

“I am extremely grateful for this opportunity,” Allen said. “Jim Kleinmann and PlayGround have made a unique commitment with this new grant. By awarding the money directly to San Jose Stage Company to produce my play, they have insured that my work will actually have a life. In the past I have been the fortunate recipient of a few commissioning grants, which have allowed me the much needed time and support to create new plays. Of course, I wish there were more such opportunities for local playwrights because there are some amazing writers here who are truly deserving of recognition. But a play just sitting there on a laptop is like a blueprint for a house, it may look good on the page but the real test is to actually build it and then have a family move in and live in it for a while. Then you have a home. That’s what this production grant means to me. It has given my play a home.”

Here’s more from the folks at PlayGround:

Allen’s Lolita Roadtrip was originally commissioned and developed by PlayGround last season as part of the 2009 Best of PlayGround Festival. This darkly comic play follows Julia (a rebellious Stanford graduate student researching her thesis) and Danny (a hitchhiking teenaged runaway she picks up) as together they retrace novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov’s actual 1941 roadtrip from New York to Stanford. A series of cross country adventures ensues bringing them closer to Julia’s climactic confrontation with Professor Drake (the man who stole her innocence and plagiarized her journal). Nabokov’s spirit visits them and somewhere between the Grand Canyon and Los Vegas they confront their own dark pasts and discover what really causes a chrysalis to transform into a butterfly. Lolita Roadtrip will mark Trevor’s second world premiere with San Jose Stage Company, following the 2005 hit Tenders in the Fog, originally commissioned and developed by PlayGround. He is currently working on a third PlayGround commission, Golden Gate Fair (set in the Bay Area), which will receive a staged reading on Sunday, May 30 as part of the 2010 Best of PlayGround Festival at Thick House.

Allen said his experience working on Tenders in the Fog revealed San Jose Stage to be “wonderfully supportive of my work.” The new production is another homecoming for the San Jose native. “Besides a brief stint at UCLA for theatre I spent half my life there, and most of my family lives there. Now having spent the better part of two decades living and working in San Francisco, it is interesting to return as a playwright and have my words come to life there.”

Also receiving a PlayGround New Play Production grant (for $5,000) is Just Theater, which will produce Erin Marie Bregmann’s Nightmare Play at the Berkeley City Club.

Keep up with PlayGround at

Keep up with Trevor Allen at his excellent site, Working for the Mouse.