YOU FOR ME FOR YOU (Interact): Sisters in different worlds

Bi Jean Ngo and Mina Kawahara in YOU FOR ME FOR YOU. Photo by Kate Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Bi Jean Ngo and Mina Kawahara in YOU FOR ME FOR YOU. Photo by Kate Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

This thoughtful production (directed by Rick Shiomi) of Mia Chung’s award-winning play looks at America through the eyes of a refugee, while gazing back at the North Korea left behind. If the purpose of art is to change how we see the world and ourselves, this play achieves it in a big way.

When two sisters are separated while escaping the Supreme Leader’s regime, one moves to an American future, while the other is stuck in a well where time moves to nowhere. Junhee (Mina Kawahara) gets a job, meets a man (Dwayne Thomas), eats ice cream, watches baseball. Her experience learning English is cleverly depicted. The American women she meets (all played by Hillary Parker, and all vaguely Jewish) speak total gibberish at first meeting, with more words becoming clear with each successive interaction. Parker nails this stream of nonsense while maintaining the mood of the scene: sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing. While Junhee embraces all of this with strength and curiosity, tenderly performed by Kawahara, her thoughts turn back to her sister.

Back in the well, Minhee (Bi Jean Ngo) travels through a surreal, underground North Korea, constantly searching for her dead son and missing husband. It’s sort of an Alice in Bureaucratic Communist Wonderland, complete with painting flora a different color, and Dear Leader taking the part of the Red Queen. She meets a series of characters, all played by Justin Jain. He works over time as a stuffy doctor, a brave smuggler, a condescending school master, a magical musician, a military husband, and an accordion playing bear, and others, sometimes switching roles and costumes within seconds. His acting is as acrobatic as his movement, and his characters create the world Minhee moves through; the set being spare, but useful.

Minhee navigates the rabbit hole as North Koreans must: with excessive formal speech and thinly veiled threats to report infractions. Ngo flows naturally through this world, where rice is literally music to her ears, with an undercurrent of desperation to get to the root of Minhee’s fear. In a powerful scene where she recalls the end of her family, her movement is a strong as Jain’s (complexly choreographed by Jungwoong Kim). He moves solidly towards the horrors that await him, while she snakes around him, clinging but unable to change what has already happened.

The starkest contrast of these two perspectives is in their dreams for the future. Junhee and her boyfriend do a (slightly stilted) dance imagining theirs together. They are successful, they have children, move to Spain, own a vineyard. Minhee dreams of having enough rice. Unfortunately, the price of escape, the deified Crossing, only allows for one. Although the beginning of the play is rushed, it comes back in the end, making it as symmetrical as its title, flipping our perspective on it, and the world at large.

[The Drake, 302 S Hicks Street] March 24-April 16, 2017; interacttheatre.org.

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