Tuesday, February 23, 2016

You For Me For You - Mu Performing Arts at the Guthrie

Audrey Park and Sun Mee Chomet.
Photo: Rich Ryan.
Mu Performing Arts, which has lately been presenting many new works, brings another new show to the Twin Cities with the regional premiere of You For Me For You by Mia Chung. Staged at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, this is a challenging and intense story of two sisters in North Korea.

As the play begins, Junhee and Minhee are fighting over a meager meal, each insisting that the other deserves to eat. The hardships and challenges of their lives in North Korea unfold slowly, from hunger and sickness to unquestioning loyalty to the Best Nation in the World and its Dear Leader.

Junhee, played by Audrey Park with fierce intensity, struggles against the restrictions and dares to voice her frustrations. Her frailer sister, Minhee, portrayed by Sun Mee Chomet, clings to the rote recitals of praise for the nation that take the place of normal conversation, fearful that the truth will reveal the futility of her personal sacrifices. When they are separated at the border during an escape attempt, their lives diverge as one faces the challenges of freedom and the other the depths of memory, each trying to find a way to survive.

You For Me For You is not intended as a literal representation of North Korea; rather, it uses the situation to explore the depths of loyalty to family and country, and the risks of challenging that loyalty. Some scenes seem very realistic, while others are dreamlike or even hallucinatory. The minimalist set contributes to the feeling that the events are unmoored from the literal world, as does director Randy Reyes' choice of having two ensemble members clad in black who seem to make objects appear from thin air. It's a very cool, kind of eerie effect.

Sun Mee Chomet and Audrey Park. Photo: Keri Pickett.
Park and Chomet are wonderful as the sisters, each going through her own trials. They are supported by Sara Richardson as a series of Americans, JuCoby Johnson as a new friend, and Kurt Kwan as everyone else. Kwan makes every one of his roles--from a party-loyalist doctor to a smuggler of escapees to a lost husband, and more--distinctive and real,

I fear that I am not doing the play justice. The script, and this production, includes moments of domestic drama, adventure, terror, and beauty. It also made me want to learn more about North Korea and the stories of people who have left the country to make a new life. In the lobby at the Dowling Studio, Mu has a monitor showing information and resources that provide context for the story. Many of these resources can be found on the Mu Performing Arts website, as well as a list of the post-show discussions around the show. Additional information is available on Mu's Facebook page.

Do see this play! And if you go, be sure to arrive early. The Dowling Studio is general admission seating, and unless you are very tall, you will want to get a seat in the first few rows. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the show takes place in front of the two-level set, with the actors frequently sitting on the floor, which means they are hidden from much of the audience. Sit up close to see these wonderful performers do their stuff.