BWW Review: N.E. Premiere of YOU FOR ME FOR YOU
You For Me For You
Written by Mia Chung, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Set Design, Jon Savage; Sound Design, Brendan Doyle; Lighting Design, Annie Wiegand; Costume Design, Adrienne Carlile; Properties Design, Alexander Grover; Production Stage Manager, Andrew Remillard; Assistant Stage Managers, Madeleine Laupheimer, Katherine Humbert; Dramaturg, Tyler Monroe
CAST: JorDan Clark, Giselle Ty, Michael Tow, Anna Waldron, Johnnie McQuarley
Performances through February 16 by Company One at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
Company One presents the New England premiere of Providence playwright Mia Chung's You For Me For You, an imaginative tale of two North Korean sisters who contemplate fleeing their homeland. Although they live in a closed society and the allure of the West is great, the decision is highly charged and they are not entirely of one mind. The cost of making the crossing cannot be measured only in dollars. Are they willing to make the necessary sacrifices to leave behind everything they know for the hope of a better life in a foreign land?
You For Me For You takes place in three settings: North Korea, New York City, and in some Star Trek zone where molecules hang out while being transported from ship to shore. In other words, allowing for the understanding that this is a work of fiction, there is an element of magical realism supporting the structure of the play that Chung relies heavily upon to mimic the way in which North Korea depicts itself to the world. When viewed as a metaphor, it has some logic; in practice, it bifurcates the sisters' stories, makes the non-linear narrative difficult to follow, and pushes the suspension of disbelief envelope to bursting.
The opening scenes drive home the message of the insufficient food and inadequate medical care that North Korea allows its citizens. Junhee (JorDan Clark) and Minjee (Gisele Ty), the latter suffering from an unnamed and undiagnosed illness, share their meager rations and make several visits to a doctor who touts the party line and takes their money. Deeply concerned for her older sister's health and well-being, Junhee decides that they must go to the West for her to receive treatment and hires a smuggler (Michael Tow) to get them out of the country. Somehow, Junhee makes it across, but Minjee stays behind, rationalizing her choice with a litany of bizarre fears and stories about the West, such as her belief that they steal your internal organs.
As an American native, Chung has no trouble imagining the scenes that take place in this country. She sketches encounters that Junhee has with a government functionary, an ESL teacher, an employer, and a sales clerk (all of them played by versatile and very funny Anna Waldron) in a cellphone store, good-naturedly skewering them all. It works to convey how confusing it is to try to navigate in a strange culture, but Junhee is intelligent and gradually figures things out. When she meets the Man from the South (Johnnie McQuarley), they form a strong connection and he hastens her progress toward assimilation. Although she has a good job and a burgeoning relationship with her boyfriend, Junhee never loses sight of her goal to accumulate sufficient funds to return to North Korea and secure Minjee's release.
Chung capably writes in different voices for each of her characters and draws some comical, yet poignant scenes between the sisters, and one in particular between Junhee and Man from the South. After they've been seeing each other for about a year, they talk about plans for the future. They visualize their career successes, having children and their kids' career successes, amassing wealth, exotic travel, and enjoying a good, long life together. It is a preview of coming attractions that will never occur, but it sates Junhee and fortifies her for her next journey.
Director M. Bevin O'Gara forms the cast into a tight ensemble. BotH Clark and Ty give fully realized portrayals of the love the sisters feel for each other and the ambivalence they feel about their country. Tow is magnetic as the sinister and unctuous smuggler. O'Gara is also resourceful in staging the play, separating the action into specific corners of the space, aided by Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand. In Jon Savage's set design, New York scenes are downstage and North Korea is primarily upstage on a raked floor panel (which is later lifted to reveal a room). Adrienne Carlile costumes the sisters alike in head scarves, quilted jackets, and slippers, but Junhee's attire eventually becomes Americanized. The smuggler's outfit makes him look as ominous as he behaves; he wears a knit cap, fingerless gloves, a long coat with numerous pockets, and heavy boots.
You For Me For You is having its second production at Company One following its world premiere in November, 2012, at Washington, DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and has undergone significant revisions. At this stage, YFMFY is not for me. I've had my fill of magical realism lately and it has been done better in both Pippin and Invisible Man. With this strong, likable cast and the creative design elements in place, I'm confident that Chung and O'Gara could ramp up the credibility quotient if they put their heads together.
Photo credit: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo (Giselle Ty, JorDan Clark)