Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Tutino
You For Me For You, a Sideshow Theatre production now playing at Victory Gardens, is a brilliantly written, thoroughly original, and provocative piece of theatre. In its imaginative way, it takes us on two journeys simultaneously: an immigrant’s saga of integration in the US and a fantastical glimpse at the horrors of everyday life in the most secretive country in the world, North Korea. Both journeys play out in unexpected and, often, surprisingly funny ways.
The play tells the tale of two North Korean sisters, Minhee (Helen Joo Lee) and her younger sister Junhee (Jin Park). When we first meet them, it’s clear that Minhee is on the brink of starving to death, feeding whatever meager rations they are afforded to her younger sister. After several visits to the doctor (a very funny Gordon Chow) bring no relief, Junhee decides to escape to the south via China, dragging her protesting, frightened sister along. The two, however, are separated at the border, and from there we watch as their separate journeys unfold: Junhee as an American immigrant and Minhee stuck in a dream world as she awaits rescue or death at the bottom of a well.
It’s clear from the start that this is going to be an unusual play. The first scene, a dinner sequence for the sisters (watched over by four silent but intimidating North Korean soldiers, there to remind us of the highly repressive nature of that society with its eyes everywhere), takes place entirely in Korean. It’s a credit to the young actresses that this English-speaking audience member had no trouble at all understanding, through their body language and movements alone, exactly what was happening (a fact that was verified when they replayed the same scene in English). This scene serves to set up several dynamics at once. First, we see the close relationship between the sisters, that either would starve for the other. Second, we see the first signs of what life in North Korea is like: scarce food, forced ceremonial refrains, and the constant fear that you will offend someone and be sent for “re-education.” Third, with the overt repetition of an entire scene we see that the narrative is not going to proceed in any kind of normal sequential pattern. And finally, we see the first indications that language itself is an important part of this play.
The difficulty of being understood and of understanding others is played out in Junhee’s journey. From the American consulate to New York City, where she finds work as a nurse’s aide, we watch as her assimilation into American society is hindered by a complete lack of comprehension. This is accomplished in a thoroughly inventive way: interaction with a character known as Liz (the brilliant Katy Carolina Collins) whose speech is an amalgam of gibberish and partially comprehended English words and phrases that give way to more complete phrases and then sentences as the play goes on, showing Junhee’s growing understanding. When she is finally fluent, the remaining elements of her journey are brought out through interaction with a boyfriend (Patrick Agada).
Meanwhile, back in the well, where she had fallen at the border crossing, Minhee is revisiting the most painful experiences of her life: the loss of her son and husband. In her exhausted, broken, starving fugue state, her imagination runs wild and what results is a combination of memory, wish fulfillment, and idealized mythology, aided by a strong company consisting of Chow, Collins, Agada, and John Lu, all playing multiple parts in her ongoing fantasy. In fact, both sisters’ stories eventually seem to blend reality and dream worlds to the extent that the viewer is never quite sure what is real and what is not. That, however, is the point: the journey of the immigrant is difficult, painful, and surreal, and success is never assured.
The show makes provocative points about society and culture in both North Korea and the United States, and leaves the audience recognizing that there is much that citizens of both countries don’t know about the other. Junhee’s integration into American life is hindered by lingering sentiments drilled into her head as she grew up, while Minhee’s journey is a comic accumulation of everything that Westerners believe about life in the “Best Country in the World” combined with elements of Korean folklore. Neither country gets off scot-free. The only thing that is certain is the deep bond between the sisters, brought out by some excellent acting between the two leads.
The set for this play, by William Boles, is a deceptively simple one: a red and black proscenium. With the help of various rotating panels, though, Boles allows this stark setting to become a forest, a pasture full of flowers, the city of New York, and other places. Director Elly Green uses the set brilliantly throughout the show. Each piece of the play has its space on the stage and she moves actors fluidly from one place to another (and backstage to move those panels). Her work is especially evident in scenes involving the precarious border crossing, staged as a dangerous strobe-lit ballet. Lighting design by Cat Wilson is inspired, as is Christopher M. Laporte’s spectacular sound design (which is practically in itself a reason to see the show). Costumes by Izumi Inaba lend verisimilitude, especially in Korea, and help to easily establish East v. West.
You For Me For You brings us creatively into the gap between Eastern and Western society, drops us there for ninety minutes, and then lets us walk away with our minds percolating with the ideas it presented. It’s a play that will stick with you long after it is over.
You For Me For You is a Sideshow Theatre production now playing at Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, until April 8. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from Sideshow Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.