In the 2012 world premiere of You for Me for You at Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, there loomed large posters of North Korea’s Dear Leader. But over the raked stage for Company One’s follow-up production, smaller photos of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un are hung by clothespins. This may reflect the greater delicacy of M. Bevin O’Gara’s more economical staging of Mia Chung’s imaginative if imperfect fable about North Korean oppression and American consumerism — either one of which can hold you captive, especially if it’s all you know.
The play sets out from North Korea, where two sisters, one of them ill, are hard-pressed for food. The repeated ritual at a doctor’s office brings lots of rote praise for the government but little medicinal aid. When the healthier sister, Junhee (Jordan Clark), gets pushy with the physician she is trying to bribe, the two sibs go into hiding. Soon a Smuggler (Michael Tow) is upon them, demanding money and an ominous something more to aid them in crossing the border. But when the illuminated grates representing the border loom at the top of the stage, only Junhee makes the leap. And through the aid of some magical-realistic geography, she finds herself not in China or South Korea but in New York City, where everyone she encounters is a woman named Tiffany (Anna Waldron) speed-talking some incomprehensible gibberish that only slowly resolves itself into a hodge-podge of English words and phrases. Meanwhile, older sister Minjee (Giselle Ty) is trapped with the Smuggler, upholding the moral fiber of her nation and scoffing at the notion of a land of plenty.
Chung, the daughter of South Korean emigrants, grew up being indoctrinated against a North Korea whose center she thought couldn’t hold — and yet it has. Using whimsical techniques akin to those of Paula Vogel or Sarah Ruhl, she explores both sides of the divide as Junhee is calmly assimilated into a world of shoe shopping, smart phones, and enthusiastic boyfriends and yet cannot escape the tug of home. I’d like to see a clearer resolution of her sacrificial journey. But I would not have missed the trip.
YOU FOR ME FOR YOU :: Boston Center for the Arts Plaza, 527 Tremont St, Boston :: Through February 16 :: $20-$38 :: 617.933.8600 or companyone.org
, North Korea, Company One, You for Me for You