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"Today Is My Birthday" shows Zoom calls can have a heart

My first foray into pandemic theater sets the bar high with split screens, relatability, and a Belarus pun.

Katie Bradley, who stars as Emily Chang in Theater Mu's "Today Is My Birthday." Photo by Rich Ryan.

If any theater company can be on top of a world-altering pandemic, Theater Mu has been, kicking off spring stay-at-home orders with three virtual events per week and then putting together a 2020-21 season that promises to be nimble. Because of this, maybe it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that its season's first mainstage production, "Today Is My Birthday," is an orchestration of cameras, split views, and green screens across multiple locations. The six-person play (supported by an 17-person production team) is bringing it all together live to your video streaming device through Feb. 14. After, the slice-of-life show is available on demand through Feb. 21. [Editor's note: Since publishing, the show has been extended through Feb. 28.]

"Today Is My Birthday" is completely told through a mosaic of radio spots, video calls, phone calls, and even one delightful door security cam scene (thank you, Katie Bradley and Eric Sharp), so while Susan Se Hoon wrote the script in 2016, it lends itself to the pandemic. MPR reported that half the cast is in Minnesota but the other half (including Broadway actor Greg Watanabe and "Gilmore Girls"' Emily Kuroda) is in California. At least one crew member, the streaming producer, in Tennessee.

The story follows Emily Chang (played by Bradley) as she moves back home to Hawaii after a New York break up. Going back home isn't some happy reunion: It's temp work with a very "Office Space" boss. It's waylaid career aspirations and dealing with new family dynamics. It's just a little bit trying to ask out the fellow radio actor you've never met. But really, it's trying to stay close to those far away, both physically and emotionally.

One of the director Lily Tung Crystal's quietest triumphs is the way she, Bradley, and China Brickey were able to bring to life the struggles of a long-distance friendship. Brickey, who plays Chang's New York best friend Halima, is a mother of two little ones with no time to spare, and their phone and video calls are often ended abruptly or full of multi-tasking moments. And that's fair; life's busy. What it does bring up, though, is the push and pull of a relationship as two people deal with drastically different problems and want a listening ear.

A few moments of intentional time, consideration, or empathy might be able to be the balm each needs, but both characters have to learn to give love in a new way since they're no longer in the same state. (Read: It's something we may have to learn to give in a new way as we deal with different comfort levels and limitations during a pandemic.)

China Brickey and Jomar Tagatac as shock jocks, speaking together while apart through Theater Mu's production feat, "Today Is My Birthday." Courtesy Theater Mu.

Brickey plays both the independent, vindictive Halima as well as exuberant and sassy DJ Solange, but she's not the only one donning multiple hats. The whole cast minus Bradley, the play's glue, has crack-fire personas they flip back and forth from with ease, but some of the tenderest moments go to Watanabe as both Emily's dad and as someone life led her to cross paths with. Both of those monologues feel like a comforting hug and a calming hand on your back amid a hurricane world.

By the end of "Today Is My Birthday," not all of the little dramas in Emily's life are clarified. The audience has to decide for themselves what she chose to walk away from and how she navigated (is navigating) her own sometimes tricky relationships. But this limbo is a little fitting. Just like life, the play is this mosaic of all these everyday conversations and disappointments and humor. And, like life, I would recommend experiencing it live; it felt more like theater than I thought it could, except that the cast and crew couldn't see my gratitude at the end of it.


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