BWW Reviews: Woolly Turns Reality on Its Head with Metaphorical YOU FOR ME FOR YOU
Mia Chung’s experimental You for Me for You, now receiving its world premiere at the edgy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company, is certainly compelling. When the show begins we witness North Korean sisters Junhee (Ruibo Qian) and Minjee (Jo Mei) bickering over who should eat the little bit of food that’s made available to them. It’s immediately clear that the sisters have immense love for one another and that Junhee will stop at nothing to save her sickly sister and help them both escape their ongoing struggles in the world's most closed society. Within minutes, however, we are transported to alternate reality – a reality where Junhee magically leaves North Korea with the help of a smuggler (Francis Jue) and makes a new life for herself in New York City, a city far different from all that she’s known. Minjee stays behind and Junhee, true to her word, continues to try to save her sister and will stop at nothing until she is safe, healthy, and free.
What starts out as a compelling and semi-realistic drama about young women struggling to change their current reality against all odds quickly turns into an unbelievable fantasy which focuses less on telling the story of the two sisters and more on providing larger social commentary that juxtaposes Eastern and Western cultures/closed vs. open societies, and considers the importance of familial bonds and roots. While I would have certainly preferred a more grounded, yet socially and politically rich depiction of the challenges of leaving North Korea being the international relations geek that I am, I will say that the way Chung chooses to tell the story is an interesting and novel one. Choosing metaphor over reality, she makes some interesting insights on the immigrant experience and the way that one’s place within the world influences how one perceives the experiences he/she encounters.
With the help of a variety of typical blond, ridiculous American characters named Tiffany (all played by Kimberly Gilbert), and a Man from the South (Matthew Dewberry) that Junhee encounters in New York City, she learns what life is really like outside of North Korea – away from the world her “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il has created. Her world view becomes increasingly expansive even if at first she’s thoroughly confused by all that surrounds her. As Minjee stays in North Korea after her sister departs, her world view doesn’t change much (and remains heavily influenced by the regime’s propaganda she’s been fed her whole life), and she remains closed off from the rest of the world, although she too has a chance later on to experience the world beyond the DMZ thanks to her sister. As each of these characters comment on aspects of their cultures – from work ethic (or lack thereof), to consumerism (or non-consumerism), and technological dependence (or lack thereof) – the audience begins to appreciate the larger, important messages Chung is trying to convey, particularly in the latter half of the play. Sure, Chung borders on oversimplifying complex issues social scientists have studied for decades, but she explores them in a way that is largely unexpected. As a theatre piece, her work is certainly worthy of production.
The small ensemble cast tasked with bringing Chung’s fantasy to live is uniformly brilliant and excels with executing the difficult material under the strong direction of Yury Urnov. Qian is appropriately determined as the spitfire Junhee and Mei is compelling (if not heart-wrenching) as her older sister Minjee who is seemingly set in her ways. Their sisterly relationship with one another is believable and organic and serves to ground the alternate universe that Chung explores.
The standout performance belongs to Kimberly Gilbert as the various women named Tiffany. It’s true she that she is the cast member with most of the chuckle-worthy one liners, but she makes the most of every moment she has on stage. Her comedic timing is unparalleled and the way that she is able to completely embody a diverse set of over-the-top characters that have but one important similarity is noteworthy. She excels at playing the “Ugly American” and is a master at staying grounded even as she is surrounded by a (very much) heightened reality.