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"Man of God" show #819

Anna Ouyang Moench’s play, Man of God, serves as Fresno State’s return to in-person productions, and what a spunky yet poignant selection this title is. Directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, I found this play to have equal parts comedy and conviction in an, overall, well-executed performance.

At its core, the play gives volume to the silence a majority of teenage girls have faced, and still face, when inappropriately approached, abused, and taken advantage of by men in positions of authority. In Man of God, Moench puts this commentary into the context of a church youth group mission trip to Bangkok, and four girls who are sharing a hotel room. Samantha, Kyung-Hwa, Mimi, and Jen are all facing teenage troubles of their own. Without spoiling each one’s individual struggle, it should be noted that the topics of eating disorders and sexual abuse are discussed throughout the play. The crux of the plot stems from goody-two-shoes Christian girl Kyung-Hwa, played masterfully by Madeline Nelson, when she finds a camera below the toilet facing upwards. The girls spend the duration of the play trying to figure out if it was the Pastor who set this up and, if so, what should be the punishment. Throughout the 80-minute, no intermission play, the audience is taken on a journey of each girl opening up about their insecurities and past traumas, and several murder fantasies containing great blocking/comedic takes. Whether it be through jokes, arguments, or serious beats, the issues dealt with hit their mark well every time.

(Top L: Madeline Nelson (Kyung-Hwa), Top R: Isabella O'Keefe (Samantha), Bottom R: Molly Heng (Jen), Bottom L: Reese Jade Herron (Mimi); Photo source: Miguel Gastelum)

Reese Jade Herron brings a spark of energy to Mimi, hurling the most offensive language in the script but in no way ever losing authenticity in portraying a girl who, at her core, is rebellious, is told she’s dramatic, and is without a filter. Isabella O’Keefe gives a great performance as Samantha, a teenager who, at first, is super serious about honoring God and serving out the purpose of the mission. However, later she turns on her Pastor’s good-natured demeanor and leads the group in a plan to, let’s just say, give the Pastor what he deserves. Molly Heng rounds out the female quartet as the peace-keeping, but certainly outspoken, Jen, who has feminist pride and delivers several astute arguments in support of female empowerment and disrupting the abusive patriarchy these characters are victims of.

(Standing: Isabella O'Keefe (Samantha), On Floor: Andy Soukantouy (Pastor); Photo source: Miguel Gastelum)

Where Moench’s play hits its stride is how at any given point the power dynamic turns on one character just when you think they’re “in charge.” The ganging up on and defending of one’s feelings, whether it be asking for an Instagram follow or how to deal with unwanted catcalls, the audience is privy to seeing just how each girl reacts when the other three are against her, as well as when they work as unit towards a singular purpose. Where the production loses its oomph is at the very end. The Pastor, played by a stoic, calculated Andy Soukantouy, enters the room to deliver his own “reveal,” (no spoilers) but one that does not match where the script has been taking the audience. Really, the questions on everyone’s, including the characters, mind are: Did the Pastor set up the camera (the script highly leans towards that he did) and will he actually confess? After a hard-to-connect-to-the-overall-text speech about the Pastor getting sick on out-of-town trips, Kyung-Hwa delivers an excellent line, brilliantly delivered by Nelson, only to get a reply by Pastor, which then gets a follow-up response from Kyung-Hwa, followed by her exit and the Pastor lingering for a few too many beats before his exit. The play, in just a matter of moments, becomes all about the man. Maybe that’s the point? The title is Man of God, after all. But after 79 minutes of depth, thoughtful drama on how victims need to be believed, how actions need to be investigated, how motives need to be questioned, the audience is left with no actual resolution or consequence for what the Pastor is thought to have done. Lastly, to have the Pastor be the last character we see and hear from spirals the audience into an uneasy feeling rather than the powerful stance that would have been left with Kyung-Hwa’s second-to-last line.

That all said, it’s a joy to see good theatre being done at Fresno State University, so you should make every effort to see it. Man of God runs through Saturday, October 9th. Support your local University and go see this show!

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