Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

You for Me for You
InterAct Theatre Company
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Rebecca's review of The Importance of Being Earnest


Bi Jean Ngo and Justin Jain
Photo by Kate Raines/Plate 3 Photography
North Korea is perhaps the most unknowable place in the world. For those of us living in the West, our conception of the country is largely based on the missile launches and military parades we see on the evening news—but the lives of average citizens in "the greatest country in the world" remain shrouded in mystery. Playwright Mia Chung finds inspiration in the paucity of hard information about life behind Kim Jong-il's iron curtain, which serves as the setting for You for Me for You, her fabulist exploration of life within and without a totalitarian regime.

In a program note for the area premiere production at InterAct Theatre Company, Chung writes that she "made a deliberate choice to employ magic realism as a narrative strategy—rather than attempt to depict the country realistically." Magic realism has served many authors and playwrights—primarily those in Latin America—in their attempts to capture the absurdities of life lived under dictatorial regimes. Unfortunately, Chung's interpretation of North Korean life feels more silly than skilled; the fleeting moments of levity she achieves are undercut by a stylized surrealism that borders on incomprehensible.

The play begins with sisters Minhee (Bi Jean Ngo) and Junhee (Mina Kawahara) sickly and starving in the southern countryside. The headstrong Junhee wants to take her chances and escape, but Minhee—who was married to a prominent government official who met an ignominious end—fears life outside the only world she's ever known. For Minhee, leaving North Korea would also mean ceding the hope that her son, whom she and her husband committed to a re-education camp in a moment of terror, may still be alive. The sisters spend much of the play's early scenes vacillating about whether to stay or go, culminating in a phantasmagorical sequence in which Junhee safely absconds to America, while Minhee remains, trapped in a dreamlike world.

The parallel narratives of Minhee's continued oppression and Junhee's uncomfortable freedom highlight the structural flaws in Chung's writing. North Korea becomes a rabbit hole of tumult and obfuscation, where Minhee is always one step removed from peril; the sameness of each chaotic situation is reinforced by having the always valuable Justin Jain play every other role. But rather than highlight the ongoing struggle with futility that is merely a fact of life, the repetitive nature of this sequence simply starts to bore.

Chung seems overly invested in foregrounding her surrealist concept, which is a shame, because the play's most successful moments are found in Junhee's struggle to adapt to life in New York. We see her slowly learn the language, as the conversation of a succession of American women (all superbly played by Hillary Parker) evolves from rapid-fire gibberish to perfectly understandable English. Junhee moves through the nursing ranks at a large hospital and finds companionship with a kind and caring Alabama transplant, movingly played by Dwayne Thomas. But ongoing feelings of guilt and dread permeate what would otherwise seem like an American success story. These represent the play's most thoughtful and cogent moments, and Kawahara beautifully captures her character's angst at enjoying the life that her sister was denied. Regrettably, though, Chung only scratches the surface of Junhee's American despair, preferring to catapult the audience back to Minhee's persistent misery.

Despite the play's deficits, InterAct's production benefits from Rick Shiomi's smooth direction and Jungwoong Kim's thrillingly frenetic choreography. Set designer Melpomene Katakalos makes the best use of the The Proscenium Theatre's deep, wide stage that I've yet seen, and Peter Whinnery's lighting frequently achieves an aching level of disorientation that the text cannot. And although Minhee frequently feels more like a plot device than a three-dimensional character, Ngo's performance is sympathetic and committed.

The style in which Chung is writing should be the perfect conduit for the story she wants to tell, because totalitarian regimes are often triumphs of magical thinking. In the end, though, I wish she had spent more time exploring the very real feelings of her characters than endlessly reinforcing her concept. You for Me for You contains stories worth telling, but their substance is bogged down by the manner in which they are told.

InterAct Theatre Company's production of You for Me for You continues at The Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia, through Sunday, April 16, 2017. Tickets ($15-38) can be purchased online at www.interacttheatre.org or by calling 215-568-8079.


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