I WISH MORE theater companies were brave enough to do even occasionally what Portland Playhouse does often and without fanfare. Because, sure, I will sit through yet another beautifully produced but lifeless white people domestic drama trotted out for the bluehairs, but I don't really want to, and I can't in good conscience recommend that you spend money to see a play that could be unfavorably compared to Downton Abbey—I mean, unless that's what you want. If it isn't, I am delighted to report that Portland Playhouse's latest, Mia Chung's You for Me for You, takes that creaky conventional approach, and doesn't even bother turning it on its head—it just blasts off past it into a universe where theater is entertaining and reflects the time in which it's made (and will also probably make you cry).
Chung's play centers on Minhee (Susan Hyon) and Junhee (Khanh Doan), two sisters living under totalitarian rule in North Korea, who've lost family members to the regime and find themselves caught up in a Möbius strip of bureaucracy seeking treatment for Minhee's illness. With help from a smuggler, they plot their escape across the border, but it doesn't go according to plan, and the sisters end up separated, one building her life from scratch in an alienating New York City, and the other caught in a surreal, dreamlike time warp that reflects the all-too-real absurdity of life under a dictatorship. Me for You for Me is a dark play, and it resonates deeply against a geopolitical background of global refugee crises, a nuclear threat in North Korea, and hateful words spewed by one shockingly xenophobic demagogue of a presidential candidate. I can't remember the last time I saw a play simultaneously so inventive and plugged into international politics.
It's also funny. There's a cutting humor to Chung's dialogue, a humanizing edge to her most reactionary characters, and even broadly funny sight gags, as when Minhee briefly becomes a living propaganda poster. Chung's written a play with a political agenda that doesn't abandon nuance. You'll leave feeling challenged and a little smarter than when you came in, which is something I wish I could say more often.