Mia Chung’s You for Me for You, now playing at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, opens with an act of sacrifice. In famine-stricken North Korea, sisters Minhee (Helen Joo Lee) and Junhee (Jin Park) argue over a meager portion of rice, each insisting that the other eat. They bicker in Korean (no translation is provided), but their intent is unmistakable. Older sister Minhee is fragile after the disappearance of her husband and the death of her young son. While she is nearly catatonic with anguish, Junhee is stirred to desperate action. She makes an arrangement with a smuggler (John Lu) to escape North Korea along with her sister, putting them at great personal risk. Junhee crosses safely, but in the chaos of the crossing, her sister is lost.
While Junhee is granted refugee status in America, Minhee is through the looking glass. She awakens trapped in a collapsed well that she fell into during her attempted escape. As her strength ebbs away, she finds herself occupying a sliver of space between living and dying. Minhee explores the afterlife, a dreamlike state that is as totalitarian and bureaucratic as the life she was trying to escape.
To be reunited with her dead son’s soul, Minhee is told, she must gather enough yellow tickets to get a visitor’s permit. Yellow tickets are purchased with blue tickets. How can she get blue tickets? Well, the rules keep changing. As she journeys in search of her son, she encounters frogs, bears, and sinister government officials (Gordon Chow and John Lu). As Minhee navigates the riddles and puzzles of her strange new world, Junhee is overwhelmed by the magnitude of choice available to her in America, from choosing a dentist to planning a date with a charming and persistent man from Alabama (Patrick Agada).
Park and Lee each give sympathetic performances, highlighting the absurd melancholy of the sisters’ stories with understated delicacy. Chung’s inventive script is brought to life with uniform wit and precision by the cast of six. When Junhee arrives in America, the well-intentioned Westerners around her (all played by the versatile Katy Carolina Collins) speak to Junhee in American-inflected gibberish. As Junhee slowly learns English, their gibberish evolves into strings of words, then broken English, until finally, Junhee is fluent. It’s a delightful device that Collins and Park execute with panache.
Director Elly Green provides lyrical, physical direction and, along with her design team, arresting dream imagery. The set, designed by William Boles, is a black and red puzzle box that flips, turns, and folds to reveal bold designs, lit to perfection by Cat Wilson as it twists and shimmers. Flat illustration is present everywhere, from the bountiful grocery stores that baffle Junhee, to the flower fields of Minhee’s dreamscape. Throughout their journeys, both sisters are confounded by marvelous and frightening new objects, courtesy of property designer Jessica Mondres.
The haunting performances and visuals give an already ingenious script an extra resonance that lingers after the cast has taken their bows. You for Me for You is a must-see production from Sideshow Theatre Company.