WTF’S “MAN OF GOD” IS THE COMEDY OF THE SUMMER!
Williamstown Theatre Festival has come roaring back to life with the horrified scream of four Asian American teenage girls in the opening moments of Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Man of God.” They have just discovered a camera hidden in their Bangkok bathroom and realized that this camera has been positioned to capture them photographically at their most vulnerable.
It is a most uncommon and welcome experience to attend a new playwright’s work with two wildly different plays on consecutive nights as I had the pleasure of experiencing with Ms. Moench, seeing “Birds of North America” at Chester Theatre Company Thursday night and “Man of God” at Williamstown Friday night. Indeed, I am sure in my 40 years of playgoing that it has never happened before. I am very grateful to the two companies for this most rewarding, marvelous, and singular experience.
The four young women are in Bangkok on an unspecified Christian mission with their pastor and they are confused about what specifically they will be doing in Thailand and whether it has anything to do with the city’s burgeoning sex trade. Will they be handing out pamphlets at massage parlors, proselytizing for Christ to the sex tourists? The women’s naivete and extraordinarily funny bandying crosstalk ranges over a number of topics (self-image, sexual experience, and relations…) as they grapple with what to do with this camera and their feelings of violation.
I can’t say more about what they discover or what they resolve to do which includes a great many alternatives including three fantastic dream sequences that live out individual revenge fantasies acted out as a samurai sword fight, a gangster showdown, or a dismemberment splatter flick. The deep resources of Williamstown’s technical expertise are welcomed here as the hotel room is transformed numerous times as the bathroom becomes visible or characters enter through closets, and pass through walls as the women summon up the courage (sometimes fantastically) to take on their oppressors. The set design is by Se Hyun Oh, Denitsa Bliznakova did the costumes, Lap Chi Chu designed the lights, Jonathan Snipes did the music and sound design and Thomas Isao Morinaka did the fight choreography.
The four women work cohesively as a team, instantly convincing you of their strong bonds and individual tensions within the group dynamic but we are also privy to crystalline moments of private revelation when all four shine individually. Ji-Young Yoo as Kyung-Hwa offers a shattering monologue about her surviving an abusive relationship. Erin Rae Li, as Mimi is most frequently Kyung-Hwa’s foil, and her very funny rough, and combative stance, is all the more rending when she can’t summon it when necessary. Shirley Chen as the good girl with the heart of a warrior grabbed my heart as I feared for her most of all, that she likely will retreat to a place unreachable in the near future. Emma Galbraith plays the extraordinary student who will aim for a Master’s in both medicine and law but again cannot rise above the social strictures that have imprisoned all four in their bodies and in this room. The stakes are very high as all feel the pressure to not “perpetuate rape culture by allowing these things to happen to me.”
Albert Park plays their Pastor who is glimpsed in dream sequences before he arrives at the play’s harrowing conclusion. The final five minutes of a wordless, specific action will haunt me for many years.
Maggie Burrows has directed her fantastic ensemble in this tight space with an expert mastery of the play’s many shifting tones. It can be a humorous girl’s bonding remembrance, a consciousness-raising response or a “what will happen next?” edge-of-your-seat thriller all within moments of each other.
This play is especially welcome as it comes within Williamstown’s curtailed season and their uncertain future plans. It would be a sin to have not produced this play this summer especially as it hits on themes of women’s empowerment, Christian nationalism, and the need for resistance.
This is the howl out loud, rage against the patriarchy, laugh yourself senseless, march to the theater comedy this summer has demanded.
Through 7/22 @ Williamstown Theatre Festival
Tickets: firstname.lastname@example.org 413-458-3253