MSG Play spices up The Old Globe’s season
Don't miss this whimsical comedy about identity
May 6, 2023
In the dream space of Ami (Anna Mikami), an Asian-American girl navigating high school in the 90s, “Exotic Deadly: Or the MSG Play” by Keiko Green presents a humorous look at a teen’s reconciliation with her family’s past. The new show at San Diego’s The Old Globe centers immigrant and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) experiences while dispelling health myths about mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and ending with laughs and tears all around.
The one-act play, at a little under two hours, is bolder than The Globe’s usual work and brings together diverse audiences spanning many generations and backgrounds. The bright colors and satirical, slow-motion fight scenes make it feel like a live comic book, but there are real emotions beneath the dramatization.
While representation in theatre usually races to catch up with the big screen, all media is missing the stories “Exotic Deadly” presents. It is a story about third-culture kids, a phrase used to describe children raised in a culture different than their parents who often feel out of place in both their family dynamics and their American home. This is a familiar theme for so many Americans, but it can be difficult for writers to accurately portray the nuances of the pressure to assimilate.
While the main idea is undoubtedly the medical concern over MSG’s possible side effects, “Exotic Deadly” tackles so much more. It is sweet, full of heart, and extremely perceptive. The writer, Keiko Green, has written for Hulu and the National New Play network, and one of her other new plays, Sharon, is slated for Cygnet’s current fall season. The Old Globe’s production marks “Exotic Deadly’s” world premiere.
Yu Shibagaki’s set opens on a colorful checkered stage and a scattering of small green stairs. Over the play, actors flip and fit the steps together to create the set, from the couches of Ami’s living room to a karaoke stage, and rolling stage extensions, pushed through the vomitoriums by technicians, bring in other set pieces and characters or wheel them away.
Ami starts off by breaking the fourth wall almost immediately, and the show continues in this fashion, both artful and self-aware. The blocking on stage is incredibly physical, and the cast fully commits to Director Jesca Prudencio’s choreography, with Ami’s mother, played by Amy Kim Waschke delivering a literally kick-butt performance.
The small but talented cast teams up, each playing a number of roles, with a seemingly endless costume budget, complete with wigs and, at one point, a yellow MSG dress. The costume design, by Hahnji Jang, is meticulous, with thought put into every detail– even the ghosts’ toe socks. The props are similarly outstanding, with a giant holographic Shrimp Chips bag, and workable seasoning shakers, the dust visible to the audience.
In a masterful scene, Amy Kim Waschke, in this case playing Ami’s school teacher, meets Ami in the bathroom and tears a pantomimed paper towel, with a ripping noise played at that exact second. Sound design also included key plot points, like bullies’ whispers following Ami through her school halls. The majority AAPI technical team shined across the board, providing a truly stellar backdrop to amazing acting.
The themes of self-determined identity and resisting assimilation remain strong throughout the script, but the subplot of intergenerational depression could be developed further. Characters visit an alternate setting of “rock bottom” representing this deep sadness, but it is unclear what Ami learns from her trips there. Although the show is written comically with teenage protagonists teenagers which would appeal to younger audiences, Generation Z audience members might miss many of the specific 90s references, leaving them out of some jokes.
Even with this, “Exotic Deadly: Or the MSG Play” is a standout for The Old Globe’s new season. It fights racist misinformation around MSG and dismantles model minority myths, while letting immigrant experiences shine.
Green’s world-premiere play runs at The Old Globe in San Diego until May 7, and tickets start at $29.