Review of Hand to God, TheaterWorks
A hand-puppet goes rogue with hilariously scary results in Robert Askins’ Hand to God, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Tracy Brigden. Brigden directed the show at City Theatre in Pittsburgh and several veterans of that cast are in the production at TheaterWorks, which features a gripping intimacy that fully exploits the play’s foul-mouthed charm.
Key to the production’s success is Nick LaMedica’s simply stupendous turn as Jason, the bashful and depressed son of a Sunday school teacher, Margery, who is trying to put together a hand-puppet performance among her charges, and as Tyrone, the hand-puppet with a mind and voice of its own that takes over the play like a male monster of the Id. At first, Tyrone, like a ventriloquist’s dummy with the dirt on its master, is simply a bit too forthright in expressing what Jason would rather not say, then, after Jason fails to destroy him, he sprouts fangs and turns Jason into his aghast appendage.
As Margery, Lisa Velten Smith is also perfectly cast, with a surprising mix of religious fervor, impatient mothering, and volcanic passions. Her husband, Jason’s father, has died recently and the loosely-structured plot uses that event as a way of explaining the wild mood swings of his surviving family. Both mother and son are seemingly schizophrenic in veering between their normal, mealy-mouthed personae and the extremes of their out-of-control acting up. It may be a bit too-too to have mother and son both fly off into surprising behavior—on paper—but on stage it works because the manic version of Margery, and Tyrone, as the vicious version of Jason, are so much fun.
And the rest of the cast is not just a bunch of straight-persons to these hyperbolic hi-jinx. As Jessica, Maggie Carr is a great comic asset, playing a mostly imperturbable teen whose lending a hand-puppet in an explicit seduction scene with Tyrone is one of Act Two’s high-points. Miles G. Jackson plays Timmy as a tough kid with feet of clay, or maybe just a confused teen with the mercurial nature that implies. He’s got a crush on Margery, resents Jason, and sneers at everything, that is until Tyrone shows his bite is as good as his bark. And as Pastor Greg, Peter Benson’s musing tone keeps the unctuous platitudes of the local religious leader from being a mere cliché. He’s got his eye on Margery too and his effort at seduction, for all that it tries to pose as anodyne and uplifting, is blandly creepy in the era of #MeToo.
There is much bad behavior flying past quickly onstage, and Tyrone, who speaks with the kind of expletive-ridden, verbal crassness that seems de rigueur in the era of our uncouth president, comes across as a mad-as-hell rebel. As with puppets used in therapy to help patients act out aggression and mimic traumatic events, Tyrone, in the scheme of the play, can be seen as a kind of desperate therapy, not only for the mourning, anger, and suppressed urges of Jason and Margery, but for a culture in which politeness masks all kinds of unpleasant truths. The play is set in Texas, and its author, a Texan, knows whereof he speaks in showing how the typical locutions of the milquetoast version of Jesus’s love can drive almost anyone to distraction.
Luke Cantarella’s scenic design is nimble in presenting the different spaces of the show—the classroom, Jason’s bedroom, Pastor Greg’s office—and Matthew Richards’ lighting design, as ever, is a godsend. Fight Choreography by Robert Westley deserves plaudits as well as this is a very physical show in a fairly small space, and the puppet design by Stephanie Shaw provides props able to seem as real as their handlers.
Askins’ target here is “the devil” as an explanatory concept for whatever is deemed heinous, inappropriate, or foul-minded in human nature. The opening and closing homilies by Tyrone, in his good and bad incarnations respectively, are simple-minded gestures toward what could be called social context. It’s not that we expect a puppet to be profound, but might wonder why the author deems it necessary to make the puppets his mouthpiece. Within the story, Tyrone’s malevolent force and Margery’s erotic urges are made to seem coping mechanisms and needn’t be considered the result of demonic possession. And yet, Askins is asking why we need both an ultimate good—Jesus—and an ultimate evil—Satan—to convince us we’re not so bad.
While some might be shocked by the behavior and/or the language of the play, there’s a rather contemporary sense in which the play—first produced Off Broadway in 2011—lets “locker-room talk” become part of classroom talk, and treats the pornographic imagination as matter-of-fact. The play may aim to exorcise our demons, in a sense, though it plays more like a Feast of Fools pageant where free license actually supports social cohesion. Hence the show’s popularity.
Hand to God
By Robert Askins
Directed by Tracy Brigden
Scenic Design/Projections: Luke Cantarella; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Elizabeth Atkinson; Puppet Design: Stephanie Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Robert Westley; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth
Peter Benson, Maggie Carr, Miles G. Jackson, Nick LaMedica, Lisa Velten Smith
July 20-August 26, 2018