Monday, February 8, 2016

You For Me For You—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland

Windmills of the Mind

This dream-like drama is written by Mia Chung and directed by Gretchen Corbett.  It is playing at their space, 602 NE Prescott St. (parking lot is located about 2 blocks North of the theatre), through February 28th.  For more information, go to their site at www.portlandplayhouse.org

I call this “dream-like,” or better expressed by the author, “magic realism.”  Keeping in mind, of course, that the word “dream” and magic have darker sides, too, called Nightmares.  Sometimes the only way someone can survive horrible experiences is by creating a fantasy…putting your real-life occurrences at arm’s length so that you can deal with them.  In Chung’s case, she uses the Pen to dissipate (or expose) the shadows that haunt her.  I’ve expressed it before, the old adage, “the Pen is Mightier than the Sword,” and, in time, I believe it will crush all demi-gods.

And so, in that vein…Once Upon a Time, in a Far-off Land, there lived a Fire-breathing Dragon.  He was a very demanding creature and would destroy anyone who spoke against him.  He discouraged, in the most heinous ways, anyone who would try to think for themselves.  In this Land, there also lived two sisters who desired to escape this Evil Empire.  And, the one thing that the beast could not control was their minds, their imaginations and so, a new reality…a magic reality…was born…

The elder sister, Minhee (Susan Hyon) was ill and food was scarce in North Korea.  Her younger sister, Junhee (Khanh Doan) was also starving and they knew the time had come to escape this restrictive structure.  They had heard horror stories of the Imperial Americans and so they chose to attempt a crossing into China.  They hired a Smuggler (Stephen Hu) to get them over the border but, in the process, they got separated.  And here, for the most part, is where the dream story or fantasy takes center stage.

Minhee’s “dream” focuses much of the time on her pangs of guilt on letting the government take away her son at an early age and be “re-educated,” reprogrammed in the ways of the State.  She also has a longing to find out what happened to her husband, a soldier of the State.  But, be careful what you wish for, as a visitation describes in graphic detail what she dreaded most.

Junhee has recurring images of Woman (Nikki Weaver), speaking what appears to be gibberish in various scenes (perhaps accenting the inability of one culture to communicate to another?).  Finally she envisions herself in a job at a hospital in NYC.  She also meets a fellow, Wade (La’ Tevin Alexander), who gives her the lowdown on being American, especially speaking her mind.  The American Dream come true?!  We’ll see…

The style in which this story is presented raises it a notch or two above other stories of this ilk.  It is presented in a dance-like (choreographer, Jessica Wallenfels), dream-like way, in which an ensemble of actors (Ken Yoshikawa, Elizabeth Bartz, Collette Campbell, Quinian Fitzgerald, Andrea Whittle, and Alex Ramirez) portray other characters, many in a surrealistic fashion.  And the setting (designer, Curt Enderle) is almost a bare stage, only bringing in a minimum of props and furniture pieces needed in the scene, and allowing the lighting (designer, Solomon Weisbard) and sound (designer, Matt Wiens) and, of course, actors, to create the atmosphere of this piece.

I can’t imagine the complexities that Corbett must have had to consider in order to do justice to the play.  But she has done it very well, incorporating what Chung calls “magic realism” into the mix.  And, in this way, she has created an alternate reality for the audience, as well.  Very well executed, I must say.  Wallenfels, likewise, creates an atmosphere of movement that enhances the surreal elements.

And the two leads, Hyon and Doan, are very convincing as the sisters.  All the gyrations necessary to create this world would have fallen on its face if these two ladies were not believable.  But, rest assured, they do remarkably well!  Weaver, in a variety of roles, is always engaging.  I can’t phantom how she managed to learn the variety of accents and gibberish(?) necessary for the parts and still make them understandable.  Wow.  Hu gives an extra dimension to his Smuggler, as he appears to have a bit of a heart, too.  And Alexander does present a very realistic portrait of what it is to be an American.

I do recommend this show.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.