Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
You for Me for You is the story of North Korean sisters Minhee and Junhee who are near starving, with the elder Minhee's health rapidly deteriorating. Poorly trained and corrupt doctors are no help. Junhee decides their only hope is to escape to the south, in spite of the great risk involved. Minhee reluctantly agrees, which means leaving behind the memory of her son who died after being sent to a re-education camp for a minor offense, and her husband, a high-ranking official who was taken by authorities years ago, not seen or heard from since. At the border, Junhee makes it safely across but Minhee slips into a deep well before crossing, and Junhee is unable to go back to aide her trapped sister.
At this point the story separates in two, scenes alternating back and forth between Junhee's transition as an immigrant in New York City (played on a raised platform above the stage floor) and Minhee's fantastic journey through a door in the well pointed out to her by a talking frog. This is where the play turns to magical realism, as Minhee has a series of unlikely encounters, the rules of living changing under her feet, hopes raised and dashed as she searches for her son in a realm where he is still alive.
Junhee goes from total disorientation to finding a job, learning the social ropes, and falling into a relationship with a man who is kind, caring, handsome and reliable. When Junhee arrives in America, the people she encounters speak in gibberish, save a word here or there Junhee understands, like "email." People babble on and on, oblivious to her lack of understanding what they are saying, though over time more recognizable words and phrases are included in the babble as Junhee learns more English, especially phrases like "graveyard shift" and "sleeping with." Even as she is finding her way in a new land, Junhee never forgets Minhee, and yearns to go back for her.
Randy Reyes directs with seamless flow between the two worlds on view, each frightening in its own way, balancing between wistful fantasy and harsh reality, with the focus always remaining on the very human struggles of the two sisters. He gets a huge boost in this from the stellar performances by both Sun Mee Chomet as Minhee and Audrey Park as Junhee. The first scene in which the two sisters argue with strained politeness, each insisting the other has the first serving of their meager dish of rice is an exquisitely tense duel of wills.
JuCoby Johnson is sweet and engaging as Wade, whose support and love for Junhee seems to be the ballast she needs to make a life in the United States. Kurt Kwan plays a series of characters Junhee encounters in her journey from the well, each a manifestation of harsh North Korean economic and social norms. Sara Richardson plays several womenan immigration official, hospital co-worker, H.R. manager and a smarmy therapistwhose rapid-fire chatter baffles Junhee with bright humor.
Joe Stanley's ingenious two-part setting is structured of geometric forms that pull down or slide in and out to provide spare tables, benches, and other minimal furnishings. Mike Croswell's sound design adds immensely to the drama, creating a sense of foreboding and mystery. Karin Olson's lighting design helps to frame the action and transitions, and Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes underscore the differences between life in and out of North Korea.
You for Me for You offers a window, even if in part imagined, into a society that is largely unknown to us. Beyond that, it touches on the challenge of crossing between cultures, the indestructibility of hope, and the unbreakable strength of family ties. It is constantly engaging and never predictable. Mu Performing Arts has delivered a sterling production of a richly rewarding play.
You for Me for You is a Mu Performing Arts production. It continues at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through March 6, 2016, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets are $22 - $26.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224, or visit www.guthrietheater.org. For more information on this play and other Mu Performing Arts events go to muperformingarts.org.
Writer: Mia Chung; Director: Randy Reyes; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Mike Croswell; Props Design: Abbe Warmboe; Stage Manager: Laura Rice
Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (ensemble), Sun Mee Chomet (Minhee), JuCoby Johnson (Wade), Anika Kulander (ensemble), Kurt Kwan ("Well" World Inhabitants), Audrey Park (Junhee), Sara Richardson (Liz).