You For Me For You
At the core of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You is the harrowing story of two North Korean sisters. Bound by an abiding love, they are separated to their unbearable sorrow.
Chung also covers other rarely visited territory for a play. There’s the immigrant experience from the immigrant’s point of view (cleverly and humorously emphasized by having Americans talk in a largely nonsensical tongue much as a new immigrant to this country might grasp what is being said).
As well we get an unsettling and fascinating glimpse into the ways of an isolated and secretive country. The remoteness is made so by a tyrannical head of state, a Goebbels like propagandist praising himself while demonizing pretty much everyone else in the world and severely punishing any of his citizenry who oppose him or his dictates. "Dear Leader," as he insists the populace address him, takes a microscopic interest in his citizens’ staying in line even as fully a third of them exist on the verge of starvation.
As interesting as all those secondary aspects are --- and they do add a lot to the show--- M. Bevin O’Gara’s sensitive and humanistic direction satisfyingly plumbs the depths beyond the novelty of the script to keep our hearts and minds firmly engaged in the sisters’s fate.
O’Gara has the benefit of a wonderful cast of mostly Asian actors who have freed themselves from the muted performances too often imposed on them to this day in the popular American media. They give their emotions full throttle and so engage ours.
The engrossing "You For Me For You," at the BCA, is the scrappy Company One’s third play in its 14th season and runs through Feb. 16. Amazingly, this many-layered tale is compactly told in a mere 90 minutes.
The story begins in a North Korean countryside village home in a dimly lit scene where Junhee, the out spoken younger sister, in a compelling performance from Jordan Clark, has prepared a birthday meal for her beloved Minuee, the more docile sister sweetly played by Giselle Ty.
The single pot of tea and sole bowl of congee (porridge) made from the meager ration of rice allotted by the government set off an argument as the older sister Minuee, who is ailing, tries to have Junhee eat the scanty serving. They are both ravenously hungry.
Through this touching scene of sisterly concern, we see that Minuee wholeheartedly believes the government propaganda that they are living in the best country in the world and that everywhere else, especially among the "ruthless" Americans, would offer a far worse existence. Her more independently thinking sister, on the other hand, wants to escape a life that is slowly killing them in North Korea.
To Minuee’s horror, Junhee wants them both to be smuggled out of the country.
A visit to a doctor, who allots Minuee insufficient meds to curb her hacking cough, all the while proclaiming that she’s getting the best medical treatment in the world, is the spark that sets the escape plan into motion. Michael Tow gives forceful performances as the unfeeling doctor who cares more about state regs than a patient, and later as the (highly paid )smuggler, who is a complicated figure on a personal mission beyond the one of getting people across the border.
Standing in for the many people Junhee interacts with as she tries to navigate her way in a new land is Anna Waldron, whose manic behavior and garbled speech perfectly approximates how she would seem to an immigrant barely able to grasp the language and unfamiliar mores.
When Junhee accidentally bumps into a man on a crowded sidewalk, "meets cute" as they say in Hollywood, a romantic involvement begins. Johnnie McQuarley is delightful as the Man From The South, who is also new to the hustle and bustle of a big Northern city.
McQuarley, who played an entrancing, one- of- the- guy’s Romeo (Happy Medium’s "Romeo and Juliet") in that very same theater space a few months ago, is an utter charmer as a man without artifice who is convinced he has found his soul mate. He, of course, has no way of knowing that Jundee’s heart is elsewhere.
Of paramount importance and splendidly carried out is the sound design from Brendan Doyle, who subtly bathes us in the aural environment of the many places this plot-line travels to.
A deceptively simple set from Jon Savage is important, as well, particularly in the final tension filled moments that build to the climax.
Annie Wiegand’s lighting is wonderfully evocative from the murky home in North Korea where there are lanterns but no electricity, to the shaded forest at the North Korean border and on to the brightly lit hospital where Junhee finds work.
The costumes from Adrienne Carlile are perfect. The props, which often have metaphorical meaning, are well done by Alexander Grover.
A resident theater company at the Boston Center for the Arts, Company One has earned a national reputation not only for the excellence of its productions but also for developing working relationships with theaters elsewhere. In this instance, they worked with Ma-Yi Theatre of New York and Woolly Mammoth of Washington, D.C. as those companies staged the premiere of "You For Me For You" in D.C. These alliances give a playwright the opportunity for a second production as she or he further hones the script. The Providence based Chung first work-shopped her play as a graduate student of Paula Vogel’s at Brown University.
The entertaining "You For Me For You," a New England premiere, is an imaginative piece that engages your feelings while prompting you to think about the larger issues of life in a dictatorship far away and the worries of an immigrant here at home.
Mia Chung’s You For Me For You continues through Feb. 16 at Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End. For tickets you can phone 617-933-8600 or go to www.BostonTheatreScene.com. and for more info you can go to www.Companyone.org.