By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
The specter of the 20th century’s wars in Asia hangs over our imaginations: the homeless veteran spare-changing on the city sidewalk; the cultural cult of Baby Boomer personalities that peaked in 1980s television shows such as Murphy Brown and China Beach, movies like Platoon and The Big Chill, and revival music tours that led to ill-fated releases of faux surf music about the state of Florida: do not cue the Beach Boys’ Kokomo. Then, a few of us, the children and grandchildren, were erased from the historical equation. We still carry the burden of sussing out the past, finding the lodestar where the saga of our families became undone.
Mia Chung’s play You For Me For You at Portland Playhouse is a vibrant swan song that illustrates, much like an engraver taking to a copper plate, the next edition of unanswered emotions in the shadow of conflict, and the real causalities, those of the heart. You For Me For You captures in perfect form the hybrid qualities of pop culture and the modern political arena: their pure spectacle, in which sacrifice is drawn into confusion and crosses the backbone of human dignity. Director Gretchen Corbett draws out of Chung’s script the iconography of human duality caught in the crossfires of bureaucracy, whether its enormous and surreal filing drawers are organized in North Korea or midtown Manhattan. This play is an elegant tête-à-tête between the heart and the measuring-out of our loyalty: to whom it may be given, and (the big question) why. There are no direct answers, but a delicate look into the major and minor keys of emotion and the ways that emotion becomes lifted into our more noble aspirations, a kind of cosmic divine and radical empathy.
Junhee (Khanh Doan) and Minhee (Susan Hyon) are sisters in North Korea, and like so many sisters, they bicker, dispute, and argue in a love-trusted way. Their bowl is overwrought by the perfection of the state, which shifts by the minute in a cluster of time-honored Confucian etiquette and a lacquered Marxism-by-name-only that has been dramatically and fanatically meshed into the demands of the head of state. Obedience, starvation, and the economy are the rulers by which each moment is accounted.
Chung’s script was workshopped over many months and performed in Washington, D.C., Boston, London, and now Portland; it will open shortly in Minnesota. The snappy script furthers the idea of a popular cultural overtake in the worlds of North Korea and the United States. Junhee and Minhee find themselves in a series of bad-luck, shifting circumstances that leave them a stark choice – to become refugees via a smuggler to a Thai jail, and eventually move on to American asylum. Junhee makes it, but Minhee is left behind in a well, and the odyssey of where their hearts will lead them is set on stage. As Junhee acclimates to the Western world, the figures around her pull a rapid fire of commercial altruisms that Ogden Nash might plunk out on his manual typewriter. The cadence, confusion and absurdity of right-versus-wrong as a malleable matter make a hilarious cacophony of desire, one that is as vacant as listening to a television set without a picture, or as an eccentric who collects operatic teleplays, reading and collecting the lines like mathematician John Nash as he descends into madness, but never hearing the voices. Much has been written in reviews of You For Me For You about the subtext of language as a powerful expression that runs through the play.
The shadows and light play well off each other throughout the performance: circles against squares, days against years, care against false promises. Matt Weins as sound designer has made a sonic world that stretches a piano wire across the ceiling of the playhouse. Mostly organic and made from pure ingenuity, the instruments sculpt the timeline and actions of the cast. Corbett, Weins, Chung and players have put deft hands into this story, and it comes alive in a way that can only be experienced, and cannot adequately be described.
I rarely try to bring an “I” into my reviews. At best, I hope to describe what I see, hear, and feel to provide a moving portrait of the performance and many hours put into a play. But in the case of You For Me For You, I have to digress from my standard. My grandfather fought on the front lines in Korea in the Forgotten War. Later, my family lived in Korea, Vietnam and Thailand during the hottest years of conflict. It was and has been a defining age in my history, one that closely aligned me and made me feel sister to Asia. But we also suffered from a tearing-apart. I have tried for many years to write succinctly a story about love, devotion, and how they can seem to be torn at the seams, but become transcendent in the darkest of hours. You For Me For You is the first and only time I have seen a representation of the joy and sorrow that our generation has been defined by.
You For Me For You continues through February 28 at Portland Playhouse. Ticket and schedule information here.