The position of middle child can be a difficult one in a family hierarchy. It’s a betwixt and between place of shifting alliances and mutable identifications. Eric Sharp’s play “Middle Brother,” which opens Mu Performing Arts’ season, takes this position and magnifies its ambiguities as he explores personal and cultural identity in the context of adoption.
While Sharp is the marketing director for Mu and has been seen many times as an actor on Twin Cities’ stages, “Middle Brother” is his first foray into playwriting.
The work revolves around Billy, a Korean American making his first trip back to his homeland after he was adopted as a small child. His agenda in returning is a simple one, involving consuming large amounts of Korean beer and barbecue and immersing himself in the culture.
What he doesn’t bargain for is finding an older brother he never knew existed and a gulf between his two lives he can’t bridge.
While “Middle Brother” deals with weighty issues of personal and cultural identity, director Robert Rosen and an able ensemble season this work with a good dose of absurd hilarity. At every twist and turn of the plot, Billy is accompanied by a Korean chorus (Su-Yoon Ko, Sara Ochs, Audrey Park, Sherwin Resurreccion and Michael Sung-Ho). At times they are scene setters, morphing from being the airliner that takes Billy to Korea into the raucous crowd of street vendors who greet him on his arrival. At other times, they provide ongoing commentary, alternately scolding, encouraging and haranguing Billy like exasperated mother hens.
Each member of this chorus also steps out occasionally to take on individual roles. Resurreccion, in particular, offers a nuanced performance as Billy’s mysterious older brother, while Sung-Ho is broadly comic as Billy’s also adopted but not biologically related younger brother. Billy himself is played by Sharp, with a nicely honed sense of bewilderment.
“Middle Brother” isn’t a long piece (100 minutes), but at times it seems padded with unnecessary material that wanders off-track, such as comic interludes with two KAL flight attendants. The plotline of Billy’s journey is mirrored throughout by an ancient tale of two brothers during the Joseon Dynasty. It’s an interesting layer that adds depth, as well as visual drama, to Billy’s dilemma, but the connections between the two stories are sometimes tenuous.
That said, “Middle Brother” offers a heartfelt and often compelling exploration of the subject of Korean adoption that’s enhanced by clever direction, John Francis Bueche’s starkly graphic set and a strong ensemble.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.