Theater Review: EXOTIC DEADLY: OR THE MSG PLAY (World Premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego)

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by Dan Zeff on April 16, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


For theatergoers who have been waiting impatiently for a new play about monosodium glutamate, your wish has been answered. Check out the world premiere of Keiko Green’s new work at the Old Globe, called Exotic Deadly: Or The MSG Play.

Anna Mikami as Ami and Eunice Bae as Exotic Deadly

As most people who eat out probably know. monosodium glutamate, better known by the abbreviated title MSG, is a seasoning ingredient once commonly added to Asian restaurant cuisine. But MSG plummeted out of favor when it was widely accused of causing unpleasant side effects, like headaches and nausea. Restaurants serving Asian dishes routinely add the guarantee “no MSG used” prominently to their menus.  But dramatist Green believes MSG has received a raw deal inspired more by Western racism than cooking issues, and her new play tries to set the record straight, employing a highly theatrical approach, some of it effective and some of it not so much.

Michelangelo Hyeon, James Seol, Anna Mikami, Trevor Salter

The Globe production uses six performers, led by young Asian-American actress Anna Mikami in the central character of Ami, who serves as the narrator as well as a main figure. Mikami, according to the playbill, is making her professional theater debut, and a spectacular debut. Mikami is on the Globe circular stage for virtually the entire 100 minutes of playing (there is no intermission) and she must be responsible for about 75 percent of the dialogue, much of it delivered with fierce upper register intensity. Mikami endows her performance with vocal resources of humor and emotion wrapped in physical stamina that dazzle, especially for a debut.

The cast of Exotic Deadly: Or the MSG Play

The playwright sets her basic time frame in 1999 but the action goes back and forth from Ami’s childhood to the present day. Much of the action takes place during her high school years, with fantasy side trips to locales like the bottom of the ocean. But mostly Ami struggles with the shame and anguish of dealing with her family’s responsibility for manufacturing MSG, finally going on her crusade to clear the reputation of MSG in the eyes of the public. The audience, doubtless rooting for Ami, should be relieved that material in the playbill persuasively gives MSG a clean bill of health, the victim of misinformation, deliberate or otherwise.

Anna Mikami as Ami and Eunice Bae as Exotic Deadly

Five actors support Mikami as multiple characters to fill out Ami’s lonely biographical portrait. One of them is a cool new student from Japan named Exotic Deadly for a reason that eluded me. The performers are Eunice Bae, Michelangelo Hyeon, Trevor Salter, James Seol (who has some especially effective scenes), and Amy Kim Waschke. They are all versatile in their acting skills but they are lumbered by too much comic shtick, mostly in the first half of the play. Still, much of the audience seemed to approve of all the low comedy hurly-burly.

Anna Mikami, Eunice Bae, Michelangelo Hyeon, James Seol

I think the play would benefit from director Jesca Prudencio taking her foot off the volume pedal, especially early on. The first half was played at a virtually shrieking level too often. Still, this is early in the run of a new play; there is time to smooth out low comedy and high decibel bumps. The production features Yu Shibagaki’s scenic design, Hahnji Jang’s costume design, Fan Zhang’s sound design, and Cha See’s lighting design.

Trevor Salter and Anna Mikami

Exotic Deadly: Or The MSG Play remains an intimate play that could have a future in theaters catering to audiences looking for offbeat subject matter encased in a production with imaginative design possibilities. But the brilliance of Anna Mikami’s performance elevates the Old Globe version into something special.

photos by Rich Soublet II

Exotic Deadly: Or The MSG Play
The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
Tues and Wed at 7; Thurs and Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on May 7, 2023
for tickets (beginning at $29), call 619.323.GLOBE or visit The Old Globe

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