Theater Mu returns to in-person theater for the first time in two years with a bang. Man of God by Anna Ouyang Moench is knockout of a play. Deftly seeing us through a disturbing premise with humor and thrills punctuated by moments of tension so thick you could cut it with a tiny pocket knife. Set in the hotel room of four teenage girls on a mission trip for their Korean Christian girl’s youth group in Bangkok. It opens as they find a camera in their bathroom, placed there by their pastor. The play follows the girls as they struggle to understand what this means, how to process this information, and what to do about it. We see their worldviews upended, tragedies laid bare, and revenge fantasies played out. It’s a premise grounded in a deeply disturbing act that is made palatable by the authors strategic use of humor. Part dark drama, part comedy, part thriller, part coming of age story, wholly engrossing.
First time stage director Katie Bradley is going to be one to watch. Man of God is a high wire act of a play that relies strongly on finding the correct tone in each moment and the perfect transitions between those moments. Bradley finds the way to accomplish all of that. Building to a climax that simultaneously uses two instances of Hitchcock’s bomb theory to ratchet up the suspense to a level where I was completely lost in the reality of the play. To the point where I felt myself tense and ready to jump up to assist the young women. Which addresses another theme that is explored from multiple perspectives in the play. These are young Asian women coming of age in the 21st century, navigating a world that is evolving, not always easily, in the ways society sees the roles of women. My reaction to want to rush to their rescue made me reflect on my own internal preconceptions of gender. Did I feel that this was a young person who could be hurt by an older person and needed assistance, or did I see a woman who needed me, a man, to save her? Each of the characters in the play is distinct, they have different perceptions of what their own role is in the world as women, what is acceptable towards them from the outside world. Their varying levels of spiritual faith also inform how they respond and what they are willing to believe.
The four actors playing the young women are all well cast: Louisa Darr as Jen, Suzie Juul as Samantha, Janet Scanlon as Kyung-Hwa, and Dexieng “Dae” Yang as Mimi. Each of the roles is written as a personality type to explore the multiple layers as the plot contains. Each of roles are so well acted that it doesn’t come off as a dramatic strategy, we don’t see the design as the plot unfolds. To comment on the revelations revealed over the course of the play would rob it of its power. Juul character is the true believer, who cannot fathom that their pastor could have anything to do with this. It’s by far the simplest character, the type for whom there are no grays only black and white. As such, the role is the least nuanced, but that is the character and not a reflection on the performance. She moves from one position to the other, once the switch is thrown, there is no turning it back. Darr is the most logical and thoughtful character, to me she represented the voice of reason. Yang, is the the girl who came on the trip not for mission work but because it was a way to take a vacation. She is the voice of outrage, the defiant one. Scanlon is the believer without the blind faith of Juul’s character, she’s the most tragic character but also the one that seems to have grown the most. All of them allow us to recognize their characters perspective even as we understand that they are naive or unrealistic at times. They absolutely sell young girls faced with something they can hardly comprehend, with only each other to help make sense of it. Rich Remedios plays the Pastor, he is little more than a prop until the last scene of the play. But it’s in that scene that he really becomes presence. Remedios perfectly embodies the predatory male authority figure who knows how to control those he perceives as weaker than himself. When he seems apologetic he creeps us out,and we can sense the attempt to manipulate. When he displays anger he frightens but when silent, he’s even more menacing.
I was genuinely impressed with the set design by Sarah Bahr. The hotel room was realistic in a way that enabled the actors to pull me out of the theater and into the world of the play. I don’t always need or even like a set that requires no imagination on my part, but for this play that added level of realism and helped me reach that moment where I left the theater behind and was in that room with the characters as a witness. The lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo is utilized very effectively for the moments when we are taken into the minds of the characters and their fantasies of revenge for the violation that has occured. There is a segment in the bathroom where lighting really underscores the emotion of the scene. These lighting effects are used strategically and greatly assist in the transition from reality to fantasy.
Theater Mu’s production of Man of God runs through March 6th at Mixed Blood theatre in Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatermu.org/man-of-god