BWW Review: Swear on HAND TO GOD for Laughs at EPAC
Once upon a time, Robert Askins wrote an Off-Broadway play about a church puppet ministry. Then it made it to Broadway in 2015, where it pulled not one but five Tony nominations. If you've ever heard the phrase "obscenely funny," that's the perfect explanation of HAND TO GOD. Imagine George Carlin watching AVENUE Q and thinking "less music, more expletives." Now imagine that his concept fell in with William Friedkin's film version of THE EXORCIST. Hello, world - welcome to possessed puppets. If the concept of Satanic, curse-laden puppets doesn't either make you laugh out loud or run off for fear of killer clowns following them, you are not human. Believe this.
HAND TO GOD is at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, directed by Ed Fernandez and Bob Breen, and if thoughts of foul language, blasphemy, and diabolical puppets don't frighten you, you're in for a wild ride and tremendous humor.
Sean Deffley plays Jason, whose mother runs the church's new puppet ministry, as she looks for something to do after being widowed. Jason is a bit of a wimp, perhaps, and not very expressive, but his puppet, Tyrone, is brash, outspoken, and with a mind of its own. He's Jason's id, all of Jason's worst feelings and worst fears unleashed through a dissociated form of expression, and Tyrone just might also be possessed, because how did he suddenly get teeth and horns?
Kristie Ohlinger is Jason's mother Margery, who's had a lot happen to her in a short time in her life. Ohlinger brings out her frustration and confusion, and her repressed anger, beautifully. Unlike Jason, she's failed to meet her dark side, but circumstance and Tyrone manage to force it to the surface.
Brian Viera, Maggie Shevlin, and Tim Riggs round out the cast as the troublemaker, the cute girl, and the preacher, all with their own stories and their own agendas. Although Deffley and Tyrone (who is a character unto himself) lead, this is really an ensemble show in most respects. The five - six if you count Tyrone - are a nearly seamless unit, showing us the dark underbelly of puppeteering and of adolescent church kid angst... as well as the utter teen awfulness of being stuck in a group led by your own mother.
Is Tyrone - or perhaps Jason - possessed by the devil, or is this the result of the enforced "good kid" having found a way to let his feelings loose? Is Tyrone the cause of everything that happens in the church basement, or a symptom of it? Is the pastor quite the paragon of virtue he seems, or is everything at the church flawed even without Tyrone?
Tyrone is more than Jason's mandated goodness finding obscene expression, though. Both before and after the incidents of the story, Tyrone expounds, foully but deeply, from a puppet stage that could as easily hold a Punch and Judy show, on the human creation of religion and the need for humans to have a devil, ideas we suspect of being too deep for high school student Jason, and just how is Tyrone lecturing us on his own? Maybe there's something afoot anyway...
Not for children or the faint of heart or ear, but undoubtedly one of the most insightful things you'll be seeing. It's black comedy at its blackest, with a hint of supernatural possibilities and a few deep, universal questions. Or, George Carlin meets AVENUE Q meets THE EXORCIST, except with less music and more Lutherans. You'll never look at puppets the same way again.
At Ephrata Performing Arts Center through the 16th. Visit Ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets and information, and fasten your seat belt when you get there. It's going to be a bumpy - but fiendishly funny - night.