Must see theatre: Woolly Mammoth’s ‘You for Me for You’

(Jo Mei (Minjee) plays the caring and stubborn older sister in “You for Me for You.” Photo by Scott Suchman)

Do not miss the comic fantasy “You for Me for You” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.  Mia Chung’s world premiere about North Korean defectors is one of the more original productions to cross the Washington, D.C., stage this season.

Sisters Junhee (Ruibo Qian) and Minjee (Jo Mei) turn to a smuggler to escape starvation in the Hermit Kingdom. The play follows Junhee’s transition to New York City, where she works as a nurse.

Human smuggling and the immigrant experience are not new topics to the stage—Studio Theatre’s 2011 production of “The Golden Dragon” comes to mind—but “You for Me for You” takes a fresh approach, never mind the reclusive setting of North Korea. One clever device in “You for Me for You” is the treatment of Junhee’s English comprehension.

Instead of the audience having a difficult time understanding Junhee’s English, the newcomer (and the audience) find the Americans incomprehensible. Woolly Company Member Kimberly Gilbert plays amusing Americans whose rapid English is indecipherable to Junhee when she arrives in the United States.  Later as Junhee’s hospital boss, Gilbert speaks in scrambled sentences mixed with HR jargon and motivational catchphrases.

Mia Chung’s clever “You for Me for You” is in the capable hands of,Jo Mei and Ruibo Qian. The play centers on the lives of two North Korean sisters.

As an anxious and drugged-out medical patient, Gilbert drops conjunctions and letters from words. As Junhee’s English proficiency grows, Gilbert’s characters speak more clearly and are more easily understood by Junhee (and the audience). Gilbert’s facial expressions are fantastic.

While there are humorous moments in the play, Chung’s script explores deeper issues. Minjee changes her mind about escaping with Junhee, unwilling or unable to believe that the North Korean government is unjust. When the smuggler (Francis Jue) attempts to persuade Minjee to leave North Korea by noting that some Americans take paid vacation days, she replies that Americans are paid to be lazy.

Her Stockholm syndrome-like mentality is formidably conveyed in Daniel Ettinger’s set. A massive wall dominates the stage, and the actors in North Korea often speak while cramped inside one of the compartments cut into the wall. Ettinger’s set is assisted by Andrew F. Griffin’s dim lighting and Elisheba Ittoop’s eerie sound design.

The script’s only weakness is The Man from the South (Matt Dewberry). Disclosure: I know Dewberry socially. While Dewberry is an affable country bumbler-turned city boy who makes full use of his funny one-liners, the role is cliché. In addition, the romantic relationship between The Man from the South and Junhee is unconvincing, given how disconnected these two characters are from one another.

“You for Me for You” is the first play to benefit from Woolly’s “Free the Beast” fundraising campaign, which aims to support the development and production of 25 new plays during a ten-year period. Woolly strives for community engagement through thought-provoking lobby displays, and “You For Me For You” is no exception.

Arrive early to view more than a dozen of Korean pop artist Song Byeok’s subversive acrylic paintings featuring, for example, Kim Jong Il dressed as Marilyn Monroe from the “The Seven Year Itch.” A propaganda artist for North Korea, Song defected after famine struck his homeland in the 1990s and Song’s father, mother and sister perished. Song himself was arrested and tortured for foraging for food in China.

“You for Me for You” is playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., through Dec.2. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinée on Saturdays. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets start at $35. For more information, call 202-393-3939