Don’t be thrown off by the puzzling title of Mia Chung’s “You for Me for You.” This play about two North Korean sisters is an imaginative and provocatively absorbing piece of magical realism.
For most of us, North Korea is terra incognito, a nuclear-armed, family-run fiefdom of grinding poverty and colorful pageants. But, surely, the millions of people who live there must have dreams and imaginative life. Enter playwright Mia Chung’s “Alice in Wonderland”-style mashup.
Instead of Alice falling down a rabbit hole, we have feverish North Korean mother Minhee (Sun Mee Chomet) tripping into a dry well. Minhee was married to a high-ranking state official. But she lost her family. Starving and sick, she reluctantly tries to escape her home with her sister, Junhee (Audrey Park).
While in the well, Minhee has fantastic visions fueled by her hunger, including a talking frog, a rebellious bear and a conductor who makes music with rice. Junhee, meanwhile, makes it to the West and has surreal experiences of her own, working in health care and dating in New York City.
Director Randy Reyes’ excellent production for Mu Performing Arts, which opened last weekend in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, takes place in a black, two-tier cupboard-like set with flip panels, smartly designed by Joe Stanley. At the bottom is North Korea, where we see two sisters in their scrawny world. At the top is America, with its promises of freedom and plenty. Karin Olsen’s lighting design sharpens the action, especially in the well-choreographed escape scenes.
When it premiered in 2012 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., “You for Me for You” was knocked for its stylistic mélange of realism and fantasy, drama and comedy, with spoken-word-style poetry thrown in. But that chucking of aesthetic orthodoxy for a wild, creative ingenuity is one of the play’s strengths. If there’s a letdown, it is that the ending — which poignantly underscores Minhee’s isolation — does not live up to the lyrical originality of all that comes before it.
Chomet shows us Minhee’s longing and pain with a vulnerability that invites us into her fragile humanity. Park is also stellar in a role that offers more artistic latitude.
Three outstanding supporting players complete the cast. Kurt Kwan plays a dozen characters, including a doctor who prescribes dogma instead of medicine. JuCoby Johnson’s Wade is all serenity and class as a Southern gentleman new to New York. Sara Richardson almost steals the show as various Americans. When Junhee arrives in New York, we hear English as gibberish sprinkled with recognizable words. Richardson plays that dialogue almost as a musical score.
This is a must-see show that seems to say: When reality is unbearable, feverish fantasy will do.