Sunday, February 7, 2021

"Today is My Birthday," a Live Virtual Play from Theater Mu

cover of virtual program
(photo by Rich Ryan)
In their first full production in the virtual space, Theater Mu has brought us something completely unique, that I don't think we've seen before in #TCTheater. I have seen not a little virtual theater in the last year, which ranges from recordings of pre-pandemic shows, to simple Zoom readings, to shows created specifically for streaming. But I have not previously seen a live production on this scale, with actors in six different locations across the country, using multiple areas in their homes, along with green screens, virtual backgrounds, sound cues, split screens, and overlayed images in an incredibly ambitious and successful technical feat. Today is My Birthday is truly innovative storytelling in a way that's never been seen before.

At the center of the story is Emily, who has recently returned home to Hawaii after living and working in New York City. Growing up, all she ever wanted was to "get off this rock," and now she's trying to figure out life on the island again. She's closer to her parents, who are going through a divorce; she's struggling to find work as a journalist and instead ends up a sort of radio actor; and she's getting over her ex Sebastian and thinking about dating again. It's really a classic coming of age story about a woman finding her way in this complicated world.

#TCTheater favorite Katie Bradley is the perfect choice to play Emily, a character that is flawed and funny and vulnerable and relatable. Katie is in nearly every scene and she carries it well (she also allowed her home to be transformed into a set, and it looks great). She receives ample support from the rest of the cast (#TCTheater artists Eric Sharp and China Brickey, along with Emily Kuroda, Greg Watanabe, and Jomar Tagatac beaming in from elsewhere), who ably portray multiple characters, popping in and out as needed. Mu's Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal directs the play in this challenging environment and manages to not only make everything run smoothly, but also bring out all the humor and poignancy of the piece. The entire team (see the online program here for full credits) does an incredible job in bringing this vision to life.

Playwrights' Center affiliated writer Susan Soon He Stanton wrote this play pre-pandemic, but it feels like it was written for this world. Most of the scenes involve characters talking to each other on the phone, Facetime, or Zoom, with several scenes on the radio. The impressive tech allows for screen-within-a-screen, split screens, virtual backgrounds in addition to the actors' real homes as background, images or videos played during screen transitions, and even sometimes making it appear as if two people are in the same space. It doesn't feel at all strange or awkward that no one is really in the same space, it feels like an exceedingly modern way to tell a story. Everything ran very smoothly opening night; my only complaint is that some of the scene transitions feel a little long (quick change!), as does the show itself at 2+ hours. But like any live theater, it might tighten up as the run progresses, and there is an option to pause the livestream at any time.

Over nearly 30 years, Theater Mu has really become expert in showcasing the work of Asian American playwrights, nurturing Asian American artists, and sharing the Asian American experience. This pandemic may have shut down all live performance, but it hasn't stopped Mu. They've been holding frequent conversations and classes virtually, as well as a virtual fundraising gala. It should be no surprise that they jumped into this new world of film-theater hybrid with such success, continuing their mission to educate, entertain, and celebrate the Asian American experience. 

Live performances of Today is My Birthday continue through this weekend, with a recording available to watch on demand the following week. If you can, I recommend watching one of the live performances for a pretty good facsimile of that feeling of live theater excitement (all tickets pay-what-you-can). Mu's season continues with a one-night only live virtual performance in March, as well as (fingers crossed) an in-person show at Mixed Blood this summer. Click here for more information and to purchase a season pass, which includes Today is My Birthday.

scenes from the show: Katie Bradley with
Eric Sharp, Emily Kuroda, and China Brickey

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