When Theatre Exile director Cat Ramirez and actor Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez discuss their work on ‘Today is My Birthday’ from playwright Susan Soon He Stanton, the real Birthday surprise is the eccentric comedy about an isolated, out-of-work journalist whose life falls apart then falls back into place weirdly, and is told through a series of voicemails, phone calls and live radio broadcasts.
Exile first-timer O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and two-timer Ramirez each talked about their reactions to playwright Stanton’s eerily humorous and askew comedy.
“I remember being given the ‘Birthday’ script by Deb Block (Theatre Exile’s producing artistic director) and immediately feeling so connected to this zany comedy,” says Ramirez. “Then how Stanton uses that comedy to reveal the deep feelings behind the isolation that the main character, Emily, is going through. That theme is something that most of us have experienced in the last few years, and offers so many rich storytelling opportunities. I automatically called Rachel about ‘Today is My Birthday’ as soon as I finished reading it.”
After having moved home to Hawaii from New York City, the isolationist Emily is a character that runs with so many shades, shadows and opportunities for laughs. But there is more than meets the eye when choosing to portray Emily.
“The multitude of characters within this play is a dream come true for any actor,” says O’Hanlon-Rodriguez. “The rehearsals for this have been so much fun because of those layers… and Theatre Exile offers an artist its own brand of intimacy to do that in.”
To that end, Rachel plays six characters, everything from a morning radio disc jockey to a stressed-out Manhattan mother to a restaurant hostess and more varied and zany roles.
“I’ve never been able to play these sorts of characters before let alone so many at once,” states O’Hanlon-Rodriguez. “Each and every one of these roles is so much fun with differing bodies, voices and time zones… all interacting in a disjointed way.”
“Rachel has a really transformative quality about her, and approaches her work with a huge sense of play,” says the director. “They would take joy in portraying so many different characters and have the skills and the precision to bring each of those separate performances to life on their own. Plus, the other reason that I knew Rachel would be so lovely in this play, is because they have an incredible open heart that shines through in all of their performances. There’s a lot of vulnerability in what Rachel does. That is really needed in ‘Birthday’.”
Ramirez knows a lot about the actor, and called on O’Hanlon-Rodriguez for the ‘Birthday’ part, and both recall the fortunate phone call that connected them for this Exile show.
“We’ve known each other for like 8 years, and did work through InterACt’s Young Playwrights program, and though we never worked together on stage, until now, somewhere in there we were roommates for four years,” says Ramirez, laughing. “We actually stopped our tenure of living together only to pick up as co-workers and collaborators this year.”
O’Hanlon-Rodriguez says that not only did the two do a brilliant job of living together, they even quarantined together at the top of the pandemic.
“All that time we were sequestered together, and still, we are truly great friends.”
‘Today is My Birthday’ is on stage at Theatre Exile from April 28 through May 22. For information and tickets, visit theatrephiladelphia.org
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