Working well into their 33rd season entitled My Roots My Revolutions, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company presents the world premier of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You. A gripping drama with comic heart that encompasses two Korean sisters trying to escape the starvation and chaos of a corrupt regime, and when one sister becomes too sick to make the journey the other vows to travel across time and space to secure their freedom. Directed by Yury Urnov in association with Ma-Yi Theater Company, this unique exploration tackles the internal perceptions of American life as viewed by those outside of it.
The complex set design both enhances and confuses the production value. Designer Daniel Ettinger sculpts an intricate scaffolding with many porthole windows that are used during scenes with Minjee and The Smuggler as they discuss the differences of life outside of the corrupted regime. While aesthetically intriguing it doesn’t seem to serve a functional purpose to have them continually popping in and out of these compartments as they speak. Ettinger does, however, use a rotating turn table to enhance the notion of time moving and busy New York City street scenes.
Chung’s book is incredibly disjointed. While the acting is well-purposed, Urnov doies an exceedingly well job at coaxing raw emotion and deep connections from his actors, the unsettling rate at which the scenes shift about and then do not synch up with one another makes it a confusing story to watch. The text is laden with symbolic ideology that gets lost in the clunky formatting of the story’s outline. And while the pacing of the show is neither too slow nor too quick there is something that left me feeling suspended from reality in a manner that is unsettling.
The notion that the main character undergoes time travel is severely understated and almost non-existent. For a central premise of the work it is so subtle that it is virtually not present, which leads to further confusion. If you hadn’t read that Junhee was traveling across time, it appears that she has only moved from Korea to America, and because there is nothing to properly delineate the timeframe in Korea— nothing set or costume design specific, not even textually referenced — the drastic change that should be present is not.
One of the most unique things about Chung’s story, however, is the way that she expresses the cultural language barrier between Junhee and America. When Junhee first arrives in the American present her broken understanding of English is expressed through Tiffany’s (Kimberly Gilbert) speech patterns. Gilbert speeds through her text at an unintelligible pace, spitting out fragmented and truncated pieces of key words so that only bits and pieces of what she’s saying can be understood. This accurately reflects what it is like to hear someone speaking their native tongue when you only know a few words and phrases.
The actors evoke deep and tender motions from their encounters, imparting their shared feelings to the audience. Playing as first The Doctor and then The Smuggler, Francis Jue is a compelling performer as he engages often head to head with Minjee (Jo Mei) in regards to the differences between the way the world is outside of Korea verses the way Mei’s character views it. Jue is able to float the more realistic ideas of the story with his simplistic portrayal of a much darker and self-serving character.
The sisterhood between Minjee (Mei) and Junhee (Ruibo Qian) is instantly recognized the moment they set foot on the stage together. While they spend more time apart in the show than together, the bond that they share is deeply rooted in love and family strength. Mei’s myopic vision of the outside world is expressed with great pains and fear, and her simplistic nature in revealing them makes her sympathetic to the audience.
Qian is the essence of the great cultural divide; slowly adapting to her new surroundings. Her inner monologues, done in a short series of voiceovers, are poignant and heavy with churning emotions stirred from deep within her character’s subconscious. When she flashes through a period of her life via impromptu song with Wade (Matthew Dewberry) it is bursting with feeling and expressive joy. Her struggles are portrayed in such a way that makes her more of a survivor and less of a hero as the text might otherwise indicate, but this in itself is a sharp directorial twist that keeps the audience engaged in her story.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
You For Me For You plays through December 2, 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.