In Mia Chung’s magical universe, money travels from one country to another via a flying paper bag, futures manifest themselves on a literal wheel of fortune, and a persimmon carries with it all the resonance of cultural conflicts and broken promises. You for Me for You, currently having its world premiere run at Woolly Mammoth, is a dizzying, sometimes surreal tale that follows Junhee (Ruibo Qian) from North Korea to the United States, leaving abject poverty and famine for a land of plenty. But Minjee (Jo Mei), the sister she leaves behind, stays in no man’s land, torn between a Stockholm Syndrome-like loyalty to the regime and a fear of the unknown.
You for Me, the first offering from Woolly’s Free the Beast new play program, is endlessly creative in its approach to contrasting two impossibly different cultures. Rather than present Junhee and Minjee as speaking in accented English, the play puts them both as the central characters, making everyone else aliens, clichés even. When Junhee first arrives in the US after a journey that isn’t explained, she’s confronted with a brash blonde everywoman (Kimberly Gilbert) speaking in gobbledygook. Only fragments of words are comprehensible, but as Junhee learns English, we start to understand more and more along with her, even if a lot of the words thrown around (“cello lesson detox”) still sound like the garblings of a capitalist lunatic.
Chung’s version of North Korea is a heightened but believable portrayal of a country shrouded in mystery. Set designer Daniel Ettinger places the two sisters in front of a vast wall of empty shelves, as if to emphasize how little they have. The two sisters bicker over who gets to eat, because each wants the other to draw sustenance from the little food they have, so the action devolves into a funny, frustrating game of pass-the-chopsticks. At the doctor’s office, shrouded in a menacing yellow light, Junhee bribes the doctor (Francis Jue) for medicine for Minjee under vast propaganda posters of Kim Jong Il, but despite repeated proclamations from each character that Minjee is lucky to be receiving the best medical care in the world, the two measly pills the doctor doles out fail to heal her racking cough.
Director Yury Urnov creates a parallel universe on the revolving circular stage, employing moving structures and brilliantly haunting sound effects by Elisheba Ittoop to enhance the atmospherics. While Junhee escapes to the US and is confronted by a barrage of noise, neon clothing, aggressive advertising, and a large, kindly Texan (Matt Dewberry), Minjee stays with the Smuggler (also played by Jue), who attempts to open her eyes to the realities around her. Sometimes the traps that bind Minjee are physical, as when she appears to be crammed into small boxes on a vast scaffold—but mostly they’re mental. The tricky, untrustworthy Smuggler, a Charon guiding the sisters between different worlds, is the only conduit between Minjee’s state of suspended animation and the frantic pace of Junhee’s new existence.
As Junhee, recent Juilliard grad Qian is understated but determined, a force to be reckoned with despite her timid affect. As Minjee, Mei movingly communicates a hunger that seems to be both literal and spiritual, as well as a determination not to feel it. Gilbert jumps dizzyingly from one overconfident character to the next, while Dewberry embodies a sweet, clichéd archetype who almost draws Junhee into accepting her new culture. But as the Smuggler and the doctor, Jue stands out for his balancing act of comedy and menace, managing to be charming, threatening, and an unlikely savior all at the same time.
With the exception of one scene, in which things devolve inexplicably into a Broadway show with mikes and faltering singing, Chung’s real-world-inspired fable both dazzles and repels, revealing the ugliness buried in both very different cultures. But in one, she suggests, there’s the chance of the most entrancing fairy tale of all: a future.
You for Me for You is at Woolly Mammoth through December 2. Tickets ($35 to $67.50) are available via Woolly’s website.