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You for Me for You - programme

“Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.”
– Lee Hyeon-seo, The Girl with Seven Names

There’s a pretention in the United States that afflicts even its less well-off citizens: “No matter how bad we have it here,” they say, “it can’t be any worse than [insert third-world country].” Despite the fact that the US is currently presided over by a guy who insisted the US was thoroughly lacking in a greatness he would supposedly restore all on his own, the majority of those who voted for him would likely take issue with anyone (except him) who suggested the United States was anything less than the God-blessed Paramount of the Western world. When Elián González was brought to the US in 2000, one of the first places his relatives took him was Disney World.

Does commie-ridden Cuba have Disney World? I don’t think so!

Of course, when you see one extreme as being the only solution to another it tends to blind you to the flaws of your preferred choice. Yes, we yanks have countless tv options, taco shells made from Doritos, and the ability to pay others to pick up our dogs’ poop, but does that really give us the right to brag that we’re better than a country like China, where everyone is watched hawk-like? Say what you will about those countries – and what you said would be absolutely true – at least they have universal healthcare.

You for Me for You is about moving from one extreme to another while being expected to act as if everything were normal.

Junhee and Minhee live in North Korea. They’re sick, they’re starving, and they’re very poor. With nothing left to lose Junhee arranges for a smuggler to sneak them over the border. They make it to the edge, but Minhee is lost along the way.

Now the two sisters live radically different existences: Junhee winding up in New York and attempting to assimilate into American culture; Minhee adapting to an existence that’s both familiar and alien. If the two ever see one another again, would either recognize whom the other has become?

One of the best narrative devices in this play – play for both laughs and pathos – relates to how Junhee becomes more and more adjusted to American life over the years. Although all the dialogue is in English, the first thing she hears is a woman speaking what sounds like pure gibberish. As the play continues, the people speaking to her become less and less… “gibberish-y” until both we the audience and Junhee can understand everyone perfectly. Of course, the first “perfect” scene involves an American woman who speaks a million miles-an-hour about every trivial thought that crosses her mind, so maybe we were all better off not knowing what was said.

When watching the Minhee scenes, I found myself thinking of the movie Beetlejuice, of all things. Like that movie, this play shows an alternate reality just as hilarious and frustratingly mired in bureaucratic micro-managing as the “normal” world we know so well. Both sisters’ stories mine a great number of laughs from the simple monotony of everyday life.

But make no mistake, this story is a tragedy, fantastic though it may be. Just as playwright Mia Chung is comfortable mining touching material for laughs, she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the land of the Kim family is an indisputable dictatorship. Even when the play begins to lose steam and overstay its welcome in the final third, it’s easy to relate to its final image of someone forever changed by events they dare not speak of again.

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And the experience is personified well by actors Kathryn Han and Grace Ng as sisters Minhee and Junhee, respectively. That the two make such good avatars for the audience, especially during the more fantastical elements of the story, should serve as proof that audience surrogates don’t always need to be blank slates with no personal history. Or White.

Incidentally, the sole White character (nay, characters), played by Elissa Beth Stebbins, personify of the play’s aforementioned running joke. They range from an Ellis Island pencil-pusher to a heartless supervisor to a motor-mouthed nurse intent on kvetching about, well, everything. The best was probably the hospital patient freaking out due to her language barrier with nurse Junhee. Stebbins gives them just enough humanity to elevate them from carictures.

Also playing multiple roles is Jomar Tagatac as a cruel North Korean doctor, a greedy border smuggler, and Minhee’s late husband, to name a few. The cast is rounded out by Julian Green as Junhee’s Black-American boyfriend from Alabama. The two men are pretty adequate in their roles, but sometimes each feels as if they’re acting in a completely different play than the one we’re seeing.

Speaking of what we see, I still don’t quite know what to make of Maya Linke’s set design? Perhaps the set pieces’ resemblance to a honeycomb is meant to reflect the North Korean view of the citizens as drones serving one master? It’s an interesting design, even if I’m not 100% sure what it means. Both set and play are well served by moody lighting cues by David Elliot and atmospheric sounds by James Ard. Even though director M. Graham Smith sometimes utilizes these resources to no useful effect (the transitions are rote and there’s one point late in the play where Minhee is simply standing in the background for no apparent reason), he wisely let his designers have fun.

You for Me for You is an interesting take on the old saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side”. In a politically-charged time as this, I wasn’t expecting a story to so directly take the two defining political ideals of the past 100 years, Communism and Capitalism, and throw their perceptions of one another into a blender. (That the US and North Korea have both made recent headlines due to the policies of their “crazy” leaders makes the story even more timely.) Although the play isn’t perfect, its strength in reminding its audience that once the ideologies are gone, there are human lives being affected by policy.

GRADE:                B

You for Me for You runs until the 1st of April at the Potrero Stage.
For tickets and information, please visit Crowded Fire Theater’s official production page here.

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