Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
What is afoot is a quartet of teenage Korean-American girls from a church in California sharing a hotel room in Bangkok, there for an ill-defined mission trip led by Pastor. When the girls discover a camera hidden in their bathroom, positioned to capture the most revealing possible photos, they are mortified. When they realize that the camera is property of their own church, and only one person could have installed it there, their level of concern greatly multiplies, but along divergent paths.
Each of the girls responds in keeping with their four distinct personalities. Mimi, in torn jeans, is the rebel of the group, liberally sprinkling her speech with obscenities and quick to assign blame and seek confrontation. Samantha, impossibly naïve and actually a bit dumb, is slow to realize what is going on and eager to deny the truth once it is made clear. Over-achiever Jen, uncertain whether to pursue law school or medical school, worries about how revealing photos showing up online, let alone the notoriety of a scandal, will affect her college admissions prospects. The fourth girl, Kyung-Hwa, is the only truly devout one among them. She fully acknowledges what Pastor has done, but is reluctant to fault him. With great effort to show compassion, she asserts all the good Pastor has done and makes excuses for him behaving as any man might behave.
Man of God is Theater Mu's first live production since BC times (that's "Before COVID"). The play is lean but muscular, and first-time director Katie Bradley brings it to searing life, leaving ample space for the humor in the piece while ensuring that the full measure of its terror is delivered. "Wait," you say, "what humor? How could this setup possibly be funny?" One of the great strengths of Moench's script is the way she captures the interactions among four girls verging on womanhood but still attached to childhood–note the stuffed animals that traveled with them on their mission. Their conversation hilariously diverges from their terrible discovery to a host of issues that might naturally come up among this foursome, making an art of the approach-avoidance dodges that give shape to the dialogue. That is not for Mimi, who brazenly approaches everything, no avoidance on her watch.
Humor dominates the first half of the play's 90 minutes, but our knowledge of what has happened and what, sooner or later, must be confronted, builds a rising line of tension so that, when the tale takes a decidedly darker tone, we are more than ready for it. This includes fantasy sequences in which the girls face Pastor in their own ways, with each fantasy becoming more chilling and disturbing. The play draws us into its crosshairs, defying us to pose a solution. I doubt anyone in the audience did not have their own idea as to what these girls should do and how Pastor should be made to pay for his villainy.
The actors playing the four girls seem to have been born into their roles. Louisa Darr conveys Jen's self-guarded nature, processing the incident not through the lens of what is inherently wrong with it, but how it stands to affect her future. As Samantha, Suzie Juul clings to a girl's fairy-tale view of life until she is pulled, by force, into the dark realm of her reality–Juul inhabits Samantha's "before" and "after" with equal skill. Janet Scanlon affectingly discloses ever-deeper levels of Kyung-Hwa's pain, the source of her playbook for rationalizing Pastor's betrayal as nothing more than "boys will be boys." Dexieng "Dae" Yang pushes Mimi's rebel persona to the edge of credibility, just as a kid wanting to be seen as a bad ass is apt to do, trying to get an ever greater rise out of her tamer peers. She cultivates her ability to shock, but her flares of anger have a residue of deep hurt.
Katie Bradley has allowed each of these actors to be true to their characters, behaving toward one another not in service to the plot but as authentic young women. They have a common connection through their church, but that turns out to not count for much. They share their status as victims, but each feels their victimization as another step forward in their potholed journey from youth to adulthood.
Rich Remedios plays Pastor, whom we do not see until well into the play, though we have heard a great deal about him and by then have our own opinions of the man. He met my expectations quite closely, and I was surprised how little the character tried to dispel them. Without giving anything way, Bradley enables Remedios to assert Pastor's position through an uncomfortably long scene marked by almost unnatural silence.
Sarah Bahr has designed a suitably drab hotel room, complete with en suite bathroom, with the wardrobes of its four young occupants aptly scattered around in piles. Khamphian Vang's costumes are well matched to each of the characters, with simple changes transforming them for the fantasy sequences. Both lighting and sound design serve the production well, and Annie Enneking provides well-executed fight choreography.
Theater Mu is devoted to work that reflects the experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans. To a large extent, the horrific offense committed in Man of God and the way the four victims respond could occur–regrettably, does occur–in any racial and ethnic group. My effort, as a white male, to discern what added resonance the piece has for the Asian-American community raises several thoughts. One regards whether the stereotyped sexualized depiction of Asian woman in Western media makes these four young women all the more vulnerable to their humiliation. Related to that, I thought it noteworthy that of the four young characters, three have Westernized names. The one who retains her Asian name, Kyung-Hwa, is also the most devout and is Pastor's strongest defender and therefore, perhaps, likely to receive the deepest wounds from his betrayal. Is there also something to be said about the play being set in an Asian city–and not just any Asian city, but Bangkok, well-known as a magnet for sex-tourism? I can only share my questions, making no claims to having answers.
Man of God premiered at East West Players in Los Angeles just three years ago. Looking at playwright Moench's listing of other produced works–Mothers, Birds of North America and Sin Eaters, all within the past few years–I noted that all are described as "dark comedies". While Moench may branch out at some point, based on Man of God, she has a terrific talent for the dark comedy genre. While the play scratches deeply into the heart and prompts challenging ideas–trigger warnings are provided for those who may expect strong adverse reactions to the play's theme–it is undeniably funny. The very last line, in fact, is one of the funniest I have heard in a new play in a very long time, even as it speaks to a vast reservoir of pain. That's playwrighting!
Man of God, a production of Theater Mu, runs through March 6, 2022, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are on a "pay as you are" sliding scale, $5.00 - $50.00. For more information and tickets call 651-789-1012 or go to theatermu.org.
Playwright: Anna Ouyang Moench; Director: Katie Bradley; Scenic Design: Sarah Bahr; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Sound Design and Composer: Katharine Horowitz; Properties Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Dramaturg: Jane Peña; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Cultural Consultant: Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay; Scenic Design Assistant: Alice Endo; Lighting Design Assistant: Mags Scanlon; Sound Design Assistant: Yunzhu "Jessica" Chen; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Sunny Thao; Assistant Stage Manager (Wednesday Matinees): Ajah Williams; Production Manager: David Pisa; Technical Director: John Lutz.
Cast: Louisa Darr (Jen), Suzie Juul (Samantha), Rich Remedios (Pastor), Janet Scanlon (Kyung-Hwa), Dexieng "Dae" Yang (Mimi).