Let’s be clear: Woolly Mammoth’s world premiere production of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You takes you on a wildly imaginative feast of poetry in the guise of theatre. Stylistically perverse and narratively skewed, You For Me For You will visually delight you just as frequently as it will auditorally amuse you and logically leave you befuddled. By the end, you won’t know exactly where you’ve been, but you will have enjoyed the trip and be haunted by the memories.
Produced in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company, and under the direction of Russian director Yury Urnov, Chung’s You For Me For You combines an array of styles both dramatic and theatrical. Although the program mentions “magic realism” as a stylistic frame of reference, for this spectator that frame proved inadequate to contain the allusive, metaphorical, expressionistic, and most definitely surreal tale this play tells. For its story defies all realistic expectations both in relation to time and behavior. When I finally shed the organizing perspective of magic realism and abandoned all pretense of realism, suddenly the play opened like a persimmon revealing its scent.
Two sisters starve in North Korea under the “loving” eye of their Great Leader Kim Jong-il. The older sister, Minjee, played smartly by Jo Mei, wants nothing more than for her sister Junhee, played with girlish determination by Ruibo Qian, to grow strong and healthy. Minjee is sick, yet she gives all the food to Junhee, even though Junhee wants nothing more than to make her older sister healthy. Their opening dance around the rice bowl—at times comic, at times heartbreaking—establishes the play’s stylistic frame. If taken realistically, the action appears forced and the behavior too cute for a totalitarian state. If, on the other hand, one views the scene metaphorically, in the way that theatre artist Ping Chong’s gorilla is more symbolic than real, or poet Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is more hyperbolic than Nazi, then the world of You For Me For You takes on a poetic glint in which narrative, though present, dissolves into the background, allowing the lyric essence of the play to rise to the top.
After Minjee goes repeatedly to Doctor, played with distressing pomposity by Francis Jue, Junhee hatches a plan for the two sisters to cross the North Korean border to South Korea—or perhaps, in this play’s mythical dreamscape, it’s the North Korean border to America, but such are the laws of poetic hallucination. At the border the two girls meet the Smuggler, again played by Jue but now with refreshing empathy. Even before a crossing is made, however, Tiffany, like an iconic American video gone viral, flashes incomprehensibly before us. At this moment you might wonder: who was that weird American woman in pink and why is she in this play? And why didn’t I understand a word that woman said?
What you will soon discover, however, is that here is where the heart of You For Me For You begins to take shape. In border-artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s performance installation Temple of Confession, two confessionals are erected: at one, audience members confess their cross-cultural fears; at the other, their cross-cultural desires. At this border crossing, fear and desire are bifurcated and grotesque. Along the border in You For Me For You fear and desire are equally represented. On the one hand, a North Korean totalitarian worldview forbids self-love and starves individual identity, particularly for its women. On the other hand, across the border, an American narcissistic solipsism runs rampant, bloating its citizens’ egos as well as their feelings of self-worth. The play’s Tiffany(s), all of whom are portrayed with wonderful versatility by Kimberly Gilbert, never take notice of the Other and, as a result, rarely comprehend the people around them. America’s men, or in this case Man from the South, played with big-hearted kindness by Matthew Dewberry, want more than anything to shower their women with gifts, fulfilling all their desires.
Director Yury Urnov does a masterful job dazzling us with this play’s unique poetics of space. Set designer Daniel Ettinger has created a great barrier in front of which much of the action takes place, or around which, like an airport moving sidewalk, the characters enter and exit, walk and talk, or through which the actors climb or refuse to climb. Andrew Griffin’s lights cast eerie shadows along the wall’s ridged surface or across the actors’ faces. It’s Urnov’s use of the visual and the actors’ physicality, however, that really sets this production apart. Whether it’s Smuggler climbing the wall leading the women to freedom, or Junhee racing around the wall in a desperate attempt to escape the duality that has bifurcated her soul, or the Man from the South taking Junhee on a magical mystery tour of what her life with him could be like, transforming that moving sidewalk into a city street complete with taxis and highrises, Urnov gives the play’s stylistic oddity clarity.
If along the way you are left still wanting coherence, don’t blame it on theatrical vagueness but on Chung’s world, where visual ambiguity and auditory perplexity stun the mind more often than not. Such a world might not be one in which you want to be immersed, even for a moment: you might want nothing more that the safety of familiar objects and conclusions. That comfortable realm is not, however, where this play’s power resides.
…a wildly imaginative feast of poetry in the guise of theatre.
You For Me For You explores the border between worlds, not as those worlds exist in reality, but as they play out in the bi-cultural identities that populate postmodern America. Anyone who has left a hometown to settle in the unknown can appreciate this play’s mytho-poetic landscape. While we fear, yet inexplicably yearn for, that totalitarian state of being in which we are secure but starved, we desire a high-tech virtual identity that promises so much but that in the end yields so little. If those dreams pull us forward, encouraging us to cross this or that border, we must always remember that reality has the final say. When all is said and done, after the American Idols have faded and ideology’s propaganda has been extinguished, all we have left on our breakfast table might be a box of Cheerios and a cartoon of Silk Soy Milk—alive yes! yet wondering what for and at what cost.
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission.
Advisory: Not advised for those who like the certainty that habits provide.
You For Me For You plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW Washington, DC, through December 2. For tickets and information call 202.393.3939 or click here.