Ready for a remarkable display of amazing puppetry amidst a hurricane of raunchy fun? Need I even ask? The zany, effervescent, and touching Hand to God deserves to be at the top of just about anyone’s Off Broadway list during its return engagement this season.
Well, let’s step back a second: top of your list? Maybe not if you’re a Christian conservative without a sense of humor. Askins’s churchgoing Bible Belters get more than their share of taking-down in this story of a puppet possessed by the devil.
And don’t bring the kids; when Margery (the exhaustingly excellent Geneva Carr), the central adult in this group of God-fearing sad cases, lets her guard down, she drops every conceivable inhibition. You’ll also see puppets doing some hilariously unspeakable things.
But while the human characters may seem superficially stereotypical, their depths are plumbed via the magic of Askins’s sharp script, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s careful balance of sensitivity and speed, and the superbly skilled cast. They emerge as complex, fully fleshed-out humans whether they are making us laugh or cringe in horror.
The premise: In a puppetry workshop at the local church, Margery leads a trio of teenagers: the relatively grounded Jessica (the always-impressive Megan Hill); Timothy (Bobby Moreno), a tall, uncontrolled id, into heavy metal and hot for teacher; and her son Jason (the painfully talented Steven Boyer), proprietor of the mischievous puppet known as Tyrone.
Tyrone lives on Jason’s left hand and is such a snarlingly entertaining character that when, at one point, Jason manages to pull Tyrone off and throw him to the floor, I found myself glancing nervously at the lifeless puppet anticipating that he’d spring back to life all on his own.
The remarkable thing about Boyer’s work is the lightning-quick back-and-forth dialogue and gestures he performs as both Jason and Tyrone, with their entirely distinct voices and personalities. (Hill is no slouch at this either in her one similar scene with a female puppet.) Is Tyrone really possessed by the devil? He’s not saying. Sensitive but tough Pastor Greg (the excellent Scott Sowers) comes to believe so, and begins planning an exorcism. Or is Tyrone just Jason’s own id, endeavoring to break the boy out of his shy shell?
Perhaps, as the seemingly evil and genuinely violent puppet suggests, that urge is actually what we mean by the devil. We can draw our own conclusions – after the laughing and staring in shock are over.
The production values are top-notch. Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s neat little sets feel spacious in the small Ensemble Studio Theatre digs. It’s not a show that would work well in a much larger venue; you’d miss the subtlety of the puppets’ characterizations. (This was one of the problems with Avenue Q‘s Broadway run – and those puppets were significantly larger.)
Matthew Richards provides effective lighting transitions evoking outdoors, indoors, and different times of day in the church activity room. The puppet designer, Marte Johanne Ekhougen, deserves credit for crafting simple creatures with evocative faces and bodies, who, controlled by expert actors, can do all sorts of unexpectedly human things.
Timing is key to this production’s success – not comic timing in the traditional sense, although that’s here, but the way a line spoken by a puppet resonates in the listener’s mind at a psychological pace different from what a live actor would provoke. This is what theater artists have known about puppetry for ages: puppets can make us hear and see things differently and recognize otherwise unacknowledged aspects of being human. Askins’s script and these performances, especially Boyer’s, take full advantage of the powers of a piece of cloth draped over someone’s arm. As if to pound home the point, there’s a late scene where an actual piece of cloth takes on Tyrone’s personality. It’s a tour de force. Catch Hand to God while you can. Unless extended, the production closes April 1.