Cynthia Levin knew she needed help.
After all, she’d never directed a puppet before.
Levin, the Unicorn Theatre’s producing artistic director, is opening the company’s 42nd season with Sarah Ruhl’s “The Oldest Boy,” a parable about an American mother and her Tibetan husband whose 3-year-old son is identified by Buddhist monks as the reincarnation of a lama, or great teacher. The play was first produced at Lincoln Center in New York, and the Unicorn show is apparently its first production at a regional theater.
Ruhl doesn’t write conventional plays, and she doesn’t provide much conventional help to the people trying to put them on stage. Kansas City audiences have seen her “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play)” at the Unicorn and “Eurydice” at the Living Room.
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Levin said she emailed with Ruhl and would pose questions such as: How do you make the transition from this scene to that scene? To which Ruhl would reply opaquely, more or less saying: Yeah, that’s a tough one.
“She pretty much left everything up to us,” Levin said. “I think she’s an amazing human being … but she never maps it out for you. She never explains how to make any of the transitions. You just have to figure it out. I was just fascinated by the whole idea of this play from the beginning.”
Ruhl’s script specifies that the 3-year-old boy, called Tenzin, be portrayed by a puppet, which was designed for the Unicorn by Mike Horner, associate artistic director of Paul Mesner Puppets. Mesner signed on to direct the puppetry for the show. Alex Espy, an actor and director associated almost exclusively with children’s theater, will operate the puppet with actress Andi Meyer, and Espy will voice Tenzin’s dialogue.
“At this point I believe I’ve played more kids on stages than adults,” said Espy, who added that he was unfamiliar with Ruhl’s play when Levin approached him about doing the show.
“As a young audiences person, some plays don’t make it on my radar, but as soon as I read it and researched it, it energized me and inspired me and I knew it was something I had to be part of,” Espy said.
In addition to Espy and Meyer, the Unicorn cast includes Katie Kalahurka, Vi Tran, Thomas Tong and Wai Yim.
Mesner said his job was to help Levin figure out how to get the puppet to do the actions specified in the script, whether it’s walking hand-in-hand with an adult or eating cereal.
“It’s been great working with Cynthia,” Mesner said. “It’s exciting to work with a polished professional like she is. She knows her stuff. I’m more familiar with kids than she is, and Alex is particularly poised because he works with kids. Alex is doing a great job with the voice acting. I’m focusing on the tasks the puppet has to do and how it’s physically done. It’s something like a movement coach, and Alex and Andi have been great about going back and wanting to dissect the various actions. It’s a little bit like choreography, (deciding) how the puppet can accomplish that in a way that is congruent with the whole acting style of the show.”
Levin said everyone involved in the production has been on a learning curve.
“I don’t know how to make the puppet do what it needs to do or make the puppet go where it needs to go onstage,” Levin said. “So I would say, ‘OK, here’s what we need the puppet to do — so how do I do that? Can he climb on the sofa? Can he grab a prop and hold it?’ And in every case Paul would figure out how to do what the puppet needed to do. … We just had to all figure out together with our set and our people and our little puppet the best way for him to accomplish a task.”