THEATER REVIEW | Mu Performing Arts’ “Middle Brother” not lost in translation

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There’s a powerful and very funny play tucked inside of everything that’s going on in Mu Performing Arts’ world premiere production of Eric Sharp’s new play Middle Brother. Right now it feels like the only thing standing in the way of the play reaching its full potential is a fictional Korean royal family, but we’ll save talk of them for later.

“Why do you need five syllables just to say ‘hi’?”

The staging of Middle Brother at the Southern Theater is really a dream production for a new play that any writer would envy. Robert Rosen directs a skilled ensemble of actors—Su-Yoon Ko, Sara Ochs, Audrey Park, Sherwin Resurreccion, and Michael Sung-Ho, performing alongside writer Sharp himself. The whole design team also knocks it out of the park—John Francis Bueche on set and props, Michael Croswell on sound, Karin Olson on lights, and Stacey Palmer on costumes. Mu’s production of Middle Brother utilizes the entirety of the Southern Theater space extremely well. It’s a solid piece of work all around, and well worth seeing now even as the play continues to evolve into whatever its final form may be. It some cases it feels like you’re watching it grow and change right before your eyes.

“Your seat cushion may also be used as a weapon to suffocate your family members.”

Billy (Eric Sharp) was born under a different name across the Pacific Ocean in Korea. He was adopted as a young boy by a family in Iowa along with another Korean boy who would become his little brother, Gabe (Michael Sung-Ho). As a young man later visiting the country of his birth, Billy is surprised to learn he has an older brother by blood who never left Korea, Hyung (Sherwin Resurreccion). This makes Billy suddenly into the middle brother of the title.

“We didn’t have time for any photographs. Ones we took were too dangerous to keep around.”

Resurreccion and Sung-Ho also join Su-Yoon Ko, Sara Ochs and Audrey Park as part of the Korean Chorus who serve as Billy’s friendly though often exasperated guides to their country, its language and customs. The ensemble around Sharp take on multiple roles outside the chorus as well – from disciplinary dream stewardess to social worker to doctor – fleshing out the population of this world.

“Just because we are looking for the answers doesn’t mean they want to be found.”

Middle Brother’s oddball sense of humor is evident right up front when the Korean Chorus begins the play by writing out in chalk on the floor, in large Korean characters, the words for Korea, Iowa and Pacific Ocean. Because they realize the audience is still learning, the make the concession of also good-naturedly writing all three names in English as well. Then they become scared of walking over the blue squiggle that helps to signify the Pacific Ocean between the two locations onstage. Luckily there is a rolling platform that can serve as a bridge whenever they want to cross over from Korea to Iowa to give Billy advice on things like packing for the trip.

“Why it take you so long to find us?”
“I didn’t need you till now.”

Middle Brother’s tendency never to take itself too seriously is one of the things that helps it work so well. The comic moments scattered liberally throughout the evening seed the ground so that when the meaningful moments appear, they stand out and mean that much more. This is especially true of the relationships between the three brothers. The humorous elements of the way the brothers interact with one another help the audience to relate to and like them. We care about what happens to them, so we’re moved when something significant impacts their lives.

“My family and I don’t get along. Just numbers in my phone really.”

One of those big moments is when Billy and Hyung first meet in Korea. They circle each other uncertainly. Hyung first appears to the audience and to Billy wearing a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette. His expression is unreadable. But after looking one another over warily, Hyung reaches out to embrace a surprised but happy Billy. As they get to know one another despite the language barrier, it quickly becomes clear that though Hyung remembers interactions with Billy in his early years, Billy has no memory of Hyung. Resurreccion is great as Hyung in these moments because he’s never maudlin or sentimental. In fact, he often can’t understand the things that Billy chooses to obsess about in his own personal quest. But you can see that Billy not remembering him is hard on Hyung. Every memory that he shares with his younger brother, you can see him, even if just a little, hoping that this will be the memory that breaks through.

“Two little Koreans growing up in a corn field.”

Conversely, Billy’s adopted brother Gabe back in America has no desire to explore his Korean roots. Like a lot of young men, Gabe is having trouble just trying to figure out how to be a man in America. While Billy spent his time being the overachiever, standing out, and then trying to reconnect with his Korean heritage, Gabe just wants to blend in and get along. He just isn’t sure what that means a lot of the time. Billy thinks focusing on Korea should bring him and Gabe together. Gabe just sees how it sets them apart, and serves as a reminder that they aren’t really brothers by blood. This is never expressly stated in the play and that’s what makes it so clever. Many of these conflicts are bubbling just under the surface of the words and the behavior of the characters, simmering under the skin of the performances. Sung-Ho as Gabe is quite a chameleon. Young adoptee Gabe on the flight over with Billy as a boy, and present day slacker Gabe have not only completely different looks, but very different personalities. When Sung-Ho joins the Korean Chorus or serves up one of his other multiples roles, he disappears (in a good way) yet again, to the point where I have to remind myself it’s all the same actor.

“There are things I can only tell you when we are speaking the same language.”

The play is on its surest footing when dealing with Sharp, Resurreccion and Sung-Ho and the exploration of the ways in which they are and are not a family. There’s a stunningly simple but evocation scene a little over halfway into the story, between Billy’s two trips to Korea, involving Hyung and Gabe at a bar. It’s not the same bar, of course. They’re on opposite sides of the world from one another. Each of them talks to a bartender on opposite sides of the same bar. The lights shift focus between the two sides as each brother gets his moment to speak. The music also shifts, providing a very different aural background for each. When one brother speaks, the other actor, now in shadow, essentially becomes their bartender. Each brother has their own way of looking at middle brother Billy and his search for remnants of his Korean childhood, and his current home in America. What they tell us (or the bartender) about Billy, also tells us a lot about them. This “two brothers and two bars in one space” is a simple theatrical conceit that could easily be confusing. But in the hands of this writer, director, actors and design team, it’s so elegantly pulled off you’re liable to miss how tricky it is to do well.

“Holy crap. Here I am. I was born here.”

By the time the bar scene occurs, however, we’re headed into a section of the play that makes a little less sense, and is a little harder to follow. The first two-thirds of the play has a fairly basic framework – Billy prepares for his trip to Korea, Billy goes on his trip to Korea, Billy returns from his trip to Korea. This structure is reinforced by the additional framing device of Billy being enlisted by the Korean Chorus to sing an original karaoke song, “Holy Crap, Here I Am.” The song is goofy and charming, but also kind of wistful at the same time. It’s a perfect accompaniment to Billy’s feeling of displacement, and it recurs throughout this trip to the country where he was born. It seems to conclude upon his return to Iowa, with Billy and the chorus now singing with an ocean between them. The story at this point seems to be drawing to a close as well—and then it keeps going, but I’m not entirely sure why.

“Try to make yourself at home, we dare you.”

The writing and acting in this final segment of the play still has its strengths and entertaining moments, but the sequence is all a bit more random as well. It seems to be intentional, but I’m not clear on the payoff. Also, there’s a dream sequence within this section that is so extensive that it becomes hard to remember that it’s a dream sequence operating under its own separate logic. Throughout the first part of the play things weren’t bound by a strict adherence to reality so much as they were supported by a set of standard theatrical conventions that the play established for the audience and then played out different variations. It was odd, but it was a kind of odd that was playing by a certain set of rules. The introduction of a whole new set of conventions for this second Korean trip was a bit jarring.

“By speaking English, you are causing your ancestors pain.”

The second Korean trip also appears to hinge on the conclusion of a recurring subplot that still baffles me. Running throughout the play is an alternate, somewhat medieval reality that implies that Billy (or what Billy signifies) is the child of royalty. At first, my brain kept trying to cram this parallel narrative into the tradition of Dickensian orphans and the like who are secretly of royal birth, or the children of biological parents who make their fortune and return to reclaim their kids and set them up in a better life. Adoptees of all races can sometimes fantasize about their birth parents reentering their lives and making things better. But that’s not what’s going on here. In fact, it wasn’t clear to me what was happening until close to the end, when the mother/queen figure appears, lamenting the loss of her son shipped away at birth. “What have we done?!” she wails. I misread this alternate story, and I may be misreading it still. It isn’t about Billy specifically. It may be more about how a nation comes to terms with the fact that it willingly parts with a cross-section of an entire generation, a chunk of its own future, and ships children off by the thousands to be raised in other lands, across many miles of land and sea. As compelling as this idea is, right now it isn’t fully integrated with the rest of the play. In fact, if you removed every one of these Korean royalty scenes, not only would the play that remains not be harmed, it might even be more coherent and stronger. The fact that the royals take up so much stage time right now leads me to believe that the writer, the director and the dramaturg all believed this plot line was essential. The actors and design team supported this story choice with all their considerable skill. The fact that is still doesn’t quite fit might be cause for reexamination after this premiere finishes its run.

“When do I get to ask the big questions?”

“Maybe never.”

All that said, however, Middle Brother is a new play with a whole lot going for it. In its most intimate human moments, it packs a real punch. Its abundant and off-kilter sense of humor is most welcome. And its way of playing with how you use theater to tell a story is endlessly inventive. Its potential seems limitless. It may not be fully where it wants to go yet, but it gets a lot closer than many new plays, and this production from Mu is a great introduction of a new story, and a new voice. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Eric Sharp. He has a lot to say, and a way of saying it that keeps me on my toes as an audience member. You can’t ask for much more than that. I’m glad he has such a supportive artistic home. Go see Middle Brother and you’ll know what I mean.

4 stars, Highly Recommended


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