BWW Review: HAND TO GOD at Road Less Traveled Productions Is An Irreverent Delight
Will good triumph over evil? Can you invoke the name of God to protect your positive behaviors? According to playwright Robert Askins, you can most definitely blame the powers of evil when it comes to bad deeds, and if you state "the devil made me do it" then you are absolved of all wrong doing. Askins' play HAND TO GOD opened last night at Buffalo's Road Less Traveled Theater in a hilariously irreverent but thought inducing production.
Puppetry can be used to great effect when needed to allow an inanimate object to speak what is humanly unspeakable, but not necessarily unthinkable. Puppets have been used brilliantly in the smash musical AVENUE Q, where all the characters are puppets who happen to be attached to humans- but those humans never speak on their own. That is not the case in HAND TO GOD, where we meet Margery and her teenage son Jason at their church hall, having recently suffered the death of the dad. Mom teaches puppetry to teenagers who really have little interest in being there. The church pastor has the hots for the newly widowed mom, and the teenagers are struggling with their own angsts.
The troubled teen Jason is played by the immensely talented Dan Urtz. His puppet,Tyrone, virtually never leaves his left arm. Jason is soft spoken and nerdy, but Tyrone speaks in a gruff voice and morphs from innocent hand puppet to a depraved and raunchy dude possessed by the devil himself. Urtz embodies the shy awkward teen while gleefully inhabiting the polar opposite as Tyrone. His handling of the puppet is so riotous and believable that by the time they get into physical altercations with each other it is hard to believe one person is portraying both roles.
Jenn Stafford shines are Margery, the mom who is trying her darndest to help the kids, but has her own inner struggles over her husband's death. Ms. Stafford receives huge laughs as the proper Southern Lutheran woman, trying her level best, but her physical needs get the better of her-- not from the willing advances of the pastor, but from a thud of a teen.
John Kreuzer is great as Pastor Greg, the man who wants a woman badly but realizes he is not really a great catch. His over zealous attempts at wooing Margery, all in the name of God and the church, are pure acts of desperation and Kreuzer pulls them off valiantly.
The other two teens are perfectly cast, rounding out a well oiled ensemble. Henry Farleo is spot on as Timmy, the dark brooding teenager who swears too much and has his sights on sleeping with Margery. Farleo is gangly and has enough roughness to make him believable as the horny teenager looking for his cougar. Maura Nolan Coseglia is endearing as Jessica, the object of Jason's affections. Once she realizes that the troubled Jason is living in another reality with his attached puppet, she dons her own voluptuous hand puppet and forges an alliance with him. In a graphic episode of side splitting puppet sex, Jason and Jessica handle their puppets sexual escapades while simultaneously carrying on a very human conversation of their own.
Askins has fashioned a play that strangely balances the topics of grief and mental illness with it's absurd farcical elements. Coarse language and suggestions of graphic sexual activity run high. He begins and ends the play with a puppet explaining how good has morphed throughout the ages, with the construct of the devil used as a scapegoat for man's bad behaviors. Every teenagers wicked thoughts then can be masked behind the puppet, which allows for over the top humor, but upon deeper consideration, the audience must realize that the human behind that puppet is expressing all of his own raw emotions.
Scenes play out as parody of scenes from SORDID LIVES and THE EXORCIST. Laughs are played broadly, but how could they not when the punch lines are coming from a depraved puppet. The setting of a church building intrinsically leads to humor when talking about sex and naughtiness, and adding a bit on Southern twang never hurts. Director John Hurley has an eye for detail, and the pacing is spot on, intimate moments in a car to full on physical fights are handled cleverly. As the play progresses, Jason's mental health deteriorates and the puppets actions become more vicious, leading to concerns over everyone's physical safety. Urtz's peformance is riveting, as he mentally and physically wrestles and grapples with is inner demons, his handling of the puppet is fascinatingly detailed and nuanced.
Set Design by Dyan Burlingame encompasses much of the theatre, with a keen eye for detail and surprising playing spaces. Adam Kreutinger's puppets are whimsical and naughty, a perfect combination for this brash new play.
HAND TO GOD plays at the Road Less Traveled Theater through March 29,2020. Contact roadlesstraveledproductions.org for more information