Playwright: Mia Chung
At: Sideshow Theatre Company @ Victory Gardens , 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; VictoryGardens.org; $20-$30. Runs through: April 8
If you're from a land with no ice cream and only state-run TV, you might be paralyzed by indecision and high anxiety if offered 31 flavors and 200+ TV channels. Will someone denounce you for an incorrect choice? Who is watching and why?
Junhee ( Jin Park ) finds herself in precisely that situation after escaping North Korea and finding work, love and far too many choices in New York. The States may be 180 degrees from the harsh, retrograde dynastic Stalinism of North Korea, but it's still dystopian in its own way as too much freedom and no freedom both are distortions. The easy availability of guns in Americatoo much freedomdemonstrates this.
George Orwell meets Lewis Carroll in Mia Chung's 2012 work of magic realism, which tracks not only Junhee's path in the New World but the harrowing parallel path of her older sister, Minhee ( Helen Joo Lee ), left behind in the nation of Kim-praise to endure The Great Famine ( 1994-98 ), during which several million citizens are estimated to have starved to death. Minhee also faces the state's impenetrable, shifting control apparatus which destroys not only her husband but also their son, sent at less than 10 years of age to a re-education prison for stealing food. Eventually Junhee returns for Minhee, an outcome heavily foreshadowed in the early scenes of this 105-minute play.
Be aware that linear and realistic storytelling is not author Mia Chung's style, or that of classy director Elly Green ( whose fine production of Ibsen's linear-and-realistic Pillars of the Community just closed at Straw Dog ). Minhee's scenes jump in time. Westerners speak gibberish to Junhee at first, representing how English sounds to her. Minhee, on a journey quest to visit her son, encounters a pedagogue cultivating musical ricea scene surely paying tribute to Carroll. Minhee's husband in ghostly form describes his death at the hands of the state in at least four different ways. Puppets of frogs ( symbolizing entrapment ) and human ears are utilized. It's all played on William Boles' shadow box set, boldly framed in red, with clever louvers ( both horizontal and vertical ) at the rear which turn to reveal various scenic and lighting effects.
Early on, the play is disconcerting as Chung jerks the audience into the magical style after an almost brutally-realistic opening scene between the sisters. You'll need to pay attention and figure out the rules of the road, which are fable-like and picaresque. Once you do, the play's simple but diverse theatrical devices are highly engaging. The fine supporting cast includes Patrick Agada ( charming as Junhee's boyfriend ), Gordon Chow, funny Katy Carolina Collins and John Lu.
North Korea's murderous horrors are well-known, so the story here involves sisterhood and perseverance, not politics.