There are probably immediate connotations associated with this Asian country with a storied past. The Korean peninsula, bordering Russia, China and the Sea of Japan, was once an empire. After early times of isolation, and annexation by Japan from 1910 to the end of World War II, Korea was divided into two separate, sovereign nations.
South Korea, with assistance from the United States, became the Republic of Korea, a democratic country with a free market economy. In the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with the Soviet Union as its powerful ally, became a single-party state, with the Korean Worker’s Party as the only option.
Over time North Korea shifted from the foundations of Marxism and Leninism, to a policy of self reliance, Juche, established by the first president, Kim Il-Sung. After the fall of the Soviet Union, late president Kim Jong-Il’s rule through a fiercely strong military became infamous, as have the countries multitude of human rights violations which have been denied by the official government.
Playwright Mia Chung takes us into the lives of contemporary North Koreans with the world premiere of the You For Me For You.
Now given a world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre through December 2, the play looks at its subject matter with imagination, humor and poignancy.
Chung has written an experimental play that blends the stark –admittedly imagined – realities of life in North Korea with a metaphysical look at barriers, and how one of the sisters acclimates herself to the West. It mostly succeeds.
I felt a bit of confusion during the play when the sisters, strong-willed Junhee and sickly Minjee, are assisted by a smuggler – played strongly by Francis Jue – across the dangerous border, to escape their plight in the harsh land ruled by the despotic Kim Jong-Il.
The barrier itself was an impressive set piece, a memorable scenic design by Daniel Ettinger. But the ambiguity of whether it represented the inherent barriers created by North Korea or an actual structure were at first lost on me.
Where the play and production, with crisp direction by Yury Urnov, truly succeeds is in Chung’s use of language and the production’s sterling performances.
With an economy of words, Chung’s script paints, in short strokes, the powerful relationship between Junhee and Minjee, the formal discourse with a corrupt physician (also played by Jue), and the down-home flavor of a Texas-styled Southern gentleman who befriends and tries to date Junhee after her move to America. Matthew Dewberry is endearing as the affable Man from the South, showing his unrequited love for Junhee.
Most memorably, Junhee’s journey to the United States – a selfless act to earn enough money to help her sister – is clocked by the interchanges with the ubiquitous Tiffany, representing all manner of Western females – clerks, passers-by, and authority figures. In the hands of Woolly Mammoth member Kimberly Gilbert, Tiffany is not only a wonderful metaphor for a North Korean immigrant’s view of American women, she represents the evolution of Junhee. The development is displayed as Tiffany’s words move from unintelligible gibberish, fragmented English, then American-speak spiced with colorful phrases and idiosyncrasies. It is a brilliant way for Chung to show Junhee’s growth from scared stranger with no command of English to a successful working citizen.
Along with Jue, Gilbert and Dewberry, strong performances come from the sisters, whose bond is so strong either one would sacrifice herself for the other.
You For Me For You
Closes December 2, 2012
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $67.50
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202.393.3939
Jo Mei brings a mixture of fragility and strength to Minjee, the sister plagued with ill health. When she is unable to cross the metaphorical border, we see her heart break, but not her will. Mei’s expresses the pain of her illness (never revealed) and her devotion to her headstrong sister with great skill.
As the physically stronger of the sisters, Ruibo Qian as Junhee matches counterpart Mei in every way. Junhee’s journey is more far-reaching and Qian shows the determination and steely resolve of her escape to the United States brilliantly. Chung allows glimmers of humor through Junhee’s adventure in America, which Qian handles with aplomb.
The cast would not be complete without Francis Cabatec as the Puppeteer. Don’t think Bunraku (that’s Japanese, anyway) or something cuddly. Cabatec helps to manipulate the set pieces, and serves as an onstage props master who helps carry through the surrealistic moments when tiny toy props represent the couple’s American Dream, or when Junhee takes her hard-earned money and sends it to her sister and the smuggler via paper bag and a fishing pole.
You for Me for You is truly an original play that gives much food for thought about the nature of family and the sacrifices we are willing to make for them. It is also the first play in the new ‘Free the Beast!’ campaign Woolly Mammoth has initiated to produce 25 new plays over the next ten years. Mia Chung’s new play is a perfect fit for Woolly Mammoth’s adventurous brand of theatre.
You For Me For You by Mia Chung . Directed by Yury Urnov. Featuring Ruibo Qian (Junhee); Jo Mei (Minjee); Kimberly Gilbert (Tiffany); Francis Jue (The Doctor/Smuggler); Matthew Dewberry (The Man from the South); Francis Cabatac (Puppeteer). Daniel Ettinger, set design; Frank Labovitz, costume design; Andrew Griffin, lighting design; Elisheba Ittoop, sound design; Mike Iveson, Jr., composer; Naoko Maeshiba, movement director; Francis Cabatac, puppeteer; John Baker, dramaturgy; and Marne Anderson, production stage manager. Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Association with the Ma-Yi Theater Company. Reviewed by Jeff Walker
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Megan Kuhn . Baltimore Post-Examiner
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Stan Kang . Asian Fortune News
Kyle Osborne . Examiner.com
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Peter Marks . Washington Post