“Jean Baudrillard believed reality doesn’t exist, there are only pictures,” claims Emily, the protagonist of the play Today is My Birthday by Susan Soon He Stanton. The line takes on a special resonance in Theater Mu’s web-based production, which was directed by Lily Tung Crystal and streamed live from February 6 to 14. In this play, all of Emily’s interactions are mediated through phone calls, FaceTimes, radio shows, and more — resulting in a complex narrative that never includes anyone speaking with her face-to-face.
As “Minnesota’s only pan-Asian performing arts organization,” Theater Mu has long been dedicated to telling stories of the Asian diaspora, and Today is My Birthday is in line with that mission. While the play does not explicitly reckon with questions of race, it does bring up certain Asian American dog whistles — ideological tensions between collectivism and individualism, diaspora and homeland, professional creation and domestic procreation. With these narratives delivered through a predominantly Asian cast, set between the cosmopolitan islands of O’ahu and Manhattan, the play is decidedly grounded in the legacy of Asian American art.
Content mirrors form in Today is My Birthday as the audience peers through the slippery lens of technological mediation to discover that Emily’s life is full of missed connections. The play opens with Emily (Katie Bradley) getting dolled up to go out for lunch, only to have her plans canceled just as she’s walking out of the door. She then calls her mother (Emily Kuroda), who chastises Emily for slow life progress, in her career as well as love (“Thirty is NOT the new twenty!”). This pattern prevails throughout the play as Emily faces flaky friends, thwarted professional opportunities, and acerbic criticisms from those close to her, while a growing queue of dropped calls becomes an emblem of certain issues Emily can’t seem to address.
The dubious relationships symbolically converge in the union of “Iris” and “Kyoni,” the respective shock jock radio personalities of Emily and a mysterious, honey-voiced man. Emily stumbles into this gig as a favor for Kurt, a no-nonsense theatre director (Eric Sharp) — he desperately needs an actor to play out a fictional meet-cute over the radio, she has nothing better to do. Thus begins the narrative heart of the play, a courtship between Emily and her mysterious counterpart. The crux of the matter is, of course, that the man Emily is pursuing is known to her only as a voice on the radio, playing a character that is engineered to entice listeners, in a contrived, bizarro situation. The relationship is, as Baudrillard would say, simulacra — mediated to the point that it has no relationship to reality.
A particularly intriguing B-plot is that of Halima (China Brickey), a friend from Emily’s grad school days and her remaining lifeline to New York. Halima is deep in a melodrama with psychoanalytic roots, grappling with a sleepwalking child, a diary-snooping husband, and dreams of eye-gouging. Her story plays out in periodic installments throughout the production, mostly through ominous voice messages while Emily is absent, wrapped up in her own dramas. Brickey’s virtuosic performance can pivot from the mundane to the horrific on a dime, and she consistently thrills.
The production’s main shortcoming is that of aesthetics. In order to accommodate scene transitions every few minutes, the screen dissolves into time-lapse footage, often of O’ahu, scored by percussive feel-good bops: a choice that feels more apropos of a travel infomercial than an inventive work of theatre, which it is. The in-scene video effects orchestrated by Leanna Keyes of Transcend Streaming is surely impressive, but at times fall into an uncanny valley of realism — while the grainy security camera footage and audio visualizations are great optic touches, crisply-rendered floating heads in green screen cars read as a bit disturbing, at least to this reviewer. All being said, live streamed performance is a challenging domain and it is commendable that Theater Mu is willing to take it on.
Although Today is My Birthday first premiered in 2017, it is obviously fitting for today’s environment — “Stanton must have been prescient,” writes director Lily Tung Crystal in the production’s PDF playbill. The logistics of a story told through phone calls and video chats work all too well for this era of distanced performance, and the mediated interactions are familiar to a hyper-online, contact-starved audience of early 2021. Emily’s situation, as a journalist struggling to find work in a provincial hometown, parallels many who have relocated and faced layoffs due to the pandemic.
The play balances its darkness with sharply funny moments, encompassing highbrow allusions (“Girl, you’re Bell Jar-ing” quips Landon (Jomar Tagatac)), self-referential art world humor (“You sound like a grant application… it’s sexy as hell”), and psychosexual quirks (a foot fetish pops up where you least expect it). Most performers play multiple characters throughout, which makes for a few potentially confusing moments for the audience but overall flexes the cast members’ broad ranges, rompish spirits, and great staminas.
In all, Today is My Birthday makes for an engrossing evening of performance that does not quite distract from the mundane horrors of contemporary reality, but rather faces them head on. It paints an unflinching portrait of a life lived with too much pride, too many secrets, and not enough tenderness — a tale old as time, for sure, but nonetheless poignant in an age of increasing technological mediation. In the end, the play’s message is bluntly sincere: life may be difficult, but it is made bearable through connecting to one’s community.