The transition from childhood to adolescence is an emotional rollercoaster as the first steps toward independence collide with adult authority, sibling rivalry, budding romance and – in the case of one teenager – a family secret that takes center stage in the comedy “Exotic Deadly: Or the MSG Play,” receiving its world premiere at the Old Globe.
Narrating the story is a self-conscious Japanese American middle-schooler named Ami (a ball-of-energy portrayal by Anna Mikami), who dies a thousand deaths daily over dramas mundane and monumental. One example is the bento-box lunch prepared by her tradition-bound mom (Amy Kim Waschke). Ami dreads the lunch period given the inevitable rude remarks by her American classmates who dismissively turn up their noses over her meal’s “foreign” aroma.
Additional racism is manifested by teachers who chide Ami for not performing academically like a “brainy Asian.” An assignment to write about her family history opens a can of worms when Ami learns her grandfather was a food scientist for a manufacturer of monosodium glutamate (MSG). This naturally occurring food enhancer has been in commercial use since the early 20th century, but the ingredient received a bum rap in the 1960s with the publication of what turned out to be a hoax letter in the “New England Journal of Medicine” with unfounded claims of ailments associated with eating Chinese restaurant food containing the product. Ami certainly does not want anyone to find out about her familial connection to this now notorious chemical.
With all this weighing on her, Ami goes into a depression so deep that it takes her, in a fantasy sequence, to the bottom of the deepest ocean where she comes face to face with long-deceased ancestors including her grandfather who relays his side of the MSG story.
Back on dry land, Ami is bowled over by a new kid at school. Exotic Deadly (Eunice Bae, in a full-throttle performance) is a badass Japanese teen who embraces karaoke, anime, manga, Super Mario Brothers and MSG. It isn’t long before Ami and her risk-taking role model are staying out past curfew and drinking beer with the boys.
Ami puts a lot of pressure on herself at first to conform and later to rebel. This, in turn, puts a lot of pressure on the audience to keep up with numerous subplots, elements of time travel, dance and music scenes. It’s a lot to pack into a 100-minute play. Relieving some of the steam from this pressure cooker are slow-motion martial arts sequences that help the audience and the cast catch its collective breath. In addition to boffo performances by Mikami, Waschke and Bae, actors Trevor Salter, Michelangelo Hyeon and James Seol are exuberant handling multiple male roles.
Set design by Yu Shibagaki is as playful and colorful as the characters who are decked out in costumes by Hahnji Jang. Lighting design by Cha See and sound design by Fan Zhang tie everything together.
by Lynne Friedmann