Rarely does any show depict North Korea, let alone without jokes about the crazy Kim family or nuclear missiles. The people who struggle there, and who risk everything to flee, remain somewhat mysterious to most Americans. But they take center stage in the innovative and provocatively told You for Me for You at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
The show centers around two sisters who bargain with a smuggler after facing starvation at home—bargaining that spans the globe and requires everything they have. Told through magical realism, the production uses music, poetry, and very thoughtful set design to guide the story. A revolving stage accentuates the element of running away. A nearly impenetrable wall represents the closed-off North Korea.
On the surface, the show might sound rather dreary; but playwright Mia Chung and director Yury Urnov avoid being overly didactic or political, and as a result the setting never weighs down the piece. Instead, the storytelling feels well-balanced between comedy and tragedy, between light and darkness.
The two sisters spend much of the show separated, and those moments are very strong. The scenes between older sister Minjee (played by Jo Mei) and the Smuggler (Francis Jue) are incredibly powerful. They respectfully depict a North Korean woman not just as brainwashed or hungry, but as someone who loves her homeland for the people she’s lost there. At the same time, she is brainwashed, and Jo Mei’s powerful performance lets us see the fear that comes from doubting one’s mind control.
On the other side of the story the younger sister Junhee (played by Ruibo Qian) navigates a thoroughly hollow Western world where a doting man and various women, played by Matthew Dewberry and an exceptional Kimberly Gilbert, push on Junhee all the crass insensitivity and absurdly big dreams of American culture; and we laugh because it’s true, if a bit superficial.
Junhee’s character has the largest journey to go through, from selfishness to sacrifice, from duty to love, from one world to another. Her ultimate choices are very moving, but the transformation could have been even richer if she’d had more room to grow from the beginning of the show. She never really develops, and the closing scenes lose some of their weight from the sense our hero hasn’t thoroughly evolved.
While Junhee’s character needed to be brought out, other parts needed to be reined in. Certain design elements could have benefited from editing, including a distracting use of miniatures and other hand props. The show’s one musical number may make sense metaphorically within the story, but that doesn’t mean it feels appropriate within the larger work.
After the lights go down at the end of You for Me for You, the audience pauses and takes a breath. Perhaps everyone is processing the tragedy. Perhaps they’re questioning our presupposed notions of identity, isolation, and free will. Or perhaps they’re wishing the show could have gone any further in some ways, and held back in others. I did all three.
You for Me for You performs now through December 2 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archive/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.