Review: Theater Mu’s ingenious ‘Today is My Birthday’ full of tenderness, charm

Emily (Katie Bradley) enjoys a conversation with her mom (Emily Kuroda) in the Theater Mu production of “Today is My Birthday” by Susan Soon He Stanton, on demand through Feb. 21. (Above) Bradley and Greg Watanabe (Rich Ryan photo)

Can you achieve tenderness through a screen?

Well, sure. The medium of film does it all the time. But the advantages of something that is part of the film genre allows for serious manipulation. Whether it’s a tight shot of a character in crisis or a wide pan to capture the world that characters inhabit, film has mastered techniques of storytelling for centuries.

This is what makes the Theater Mu production of Susan Soon He Stanton’s “Today is My Birthday” such a spectacular achievement, because online theatre productions are at a distinct disadvantage. The tight angles and precise lighting only exist because an actor has to set up their own shot. A laptop and lamp on top of a table is the extent of the fancy schmancy technical specs.

What does endure beautifully in this production, running on demand through Sunday, Feb. 28 is perspective. In a theatre, you see and experience the play based on where you sit. In this production, the individual perspectives do not change, much like a live production. There is no actual zooming in on a face broken by circumstance. That is quite a compelling dynamic.

Actors in this production, who need to connect in the most inorganic of ways nowadays, have found a way to tell an honest story that is delightfully funny with prescient poignance. It’s the tale of a young woman who strives for connection despite being filled with a more plastic version of friendship in her real life.

In order to nail down the storytelling that takes place, coordination with a cast of six who are scattered throughout the country has to be beyond precise, with a brilliant, sharp team of folks sitting in a Minnesota control room zipping green screen images right to the kitchens and living rooms of the cast. The play is directed by Mu’s artistic director Lily Tung Crystal, a fantastic stage director who plied her trade for years throughout the Bay Area before leaving for Minneapolis/St. Paul more than a year ago to steward Mu, one of the largest Asian American theatre companies in the country.

Emily (Katie Bradley) is another victim of the chew it up, spit it out nature of New York City transplant cruelty. Her journalism career never really took off, so it’s time to return home to her native Hawaii to try and make things work, both professionally and personally. Yet for the misanthrope-like Emily, many interactions are of the harrowing variety. In and out of her life comes a rollicking cacophony of characters, all split up between the wildly talented remaining cast of five.

DJ Solange (China Brickey, left) and DJ Loki (Jomar Tagatac) bring their morning zoo energy to their radio broadcast. (Rich Ryan photo)

What starts out as an opportunity to do something fun, asking a guy on a fake date for a radio hit evolves into a mission to make her love life a bit more real. Emily is floundering and can use a win right about now. Her buddy Halima (China Brickey) has adult things to do instead of Facebook stalk Emily’s ex, saying things like “my children are my therapy.” That should give you an indication on how things are going for Halima. And Emily’s loving yet overbearing parents (Emily Kuroda and Greg Watanabe) have their own issues as their marriage comes to a close.

The story’s construction greatly adapts to the platform, and features each actors’ talents, folks who play multiple characters that are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Kuroda and Watanabe both use their terrific range to deliver delightful comic fare as well as scintillating empathetic moments of honesty. Brickey is effective throughout, playing both straight and zany to great effect. Eric Sharp’s voice alone fits beautifully in the online theatre medium, his rich timbre filling any decent pair of headphones. And Jomar Tagatac, a venerable Bay Area stage veteran, is full of comic joy with his many delightful turns, including DJ Loki, a tribute to the morning zoo-like spinmaster and a “smack dat monkey” drop at his fingertips.

The play has a modern feel as we experience this new variation of an ancient art form in the same room that also houses our bed. There are more than 50 scenes, which provides one huge level of difficulty for the control room folks. The establishing shots of the multiple cities and how they transition each scene are simply stellar.

The last half of the play is brought home with aplomb. Take note of the scene where Emily’s dad succinctly and lovingly breaks down “Central Park in the Dark” by Charles Ives. The composition is all over the place and widely misunderstood, but the piece carries a compelling insight. “Ives was really into mistakes” says Dad.

“Maybe I would like him,” remarks Emily, clearly finding a metaphoric connection in the music with her own life.

The power of the story belongs to Emily, which keeps Bradley in frame for just about the entire two uninterrupted hours of the play, displaying a really strong range of emotion to bring Emily’s truth to light. While she searches deeply for any kind of connection that might end with outer peace, she makes a critical discovery – the joy she seeks from every kind of interaction starts and ends within her. It is a mother’s love and wisdom that seems to confirm this when Mom makes a simple request for Emily after a challenging chat:

“Come with me to Macy’s, I have to do returns.”

A return often comes with something better on the other end. Emily has plenty in her own life to return. And once that inner peace encapsulates her after she makes a few returns, a butt dial just might lead to a real, wanted conversation.

WHAT TO KNOW

Theater Mu presents “Today Is My Birthday”
Written by Susan Soon He Stanton
Directed by Lily Tung Crystal
The Word: A wonderful entry into the online theatre genre, with wittiness that comes from a brilliant production team and strong acting performances throughout.
Featuring Katie Bradley, China Brickey, Eric Sharp, Jomar Tagatac, Greg Watanabe and Emily Kuroda
Video on demand – Through Feb. 28
Tickets are pay as you are, ranging from $5 – $50
For tickets and information, visit theatermu.org

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s