BWW Review: HAND TO GOD at WaterTower Theatre
Listen, I'm a sucker for immersive staging. So, naturally, when I heard what WaterTower Theatre was doing with Robert Askins' Hand to God, I had to see it for the set alone. From WTT's hilarious PR over the last month I knew what I would find in the space: a catholic school/church basement filled with debaucherous puppetry. What I didn't know, however, was how compellingly performed and joyously inquisitive Joanie Schultz's staging would be.
I was familiar with the book of Hand to God before the show, and I can only imagine how much more fun it would be to come into the space blind - and for that reason I will refrain from sharing much about the story. All you need to know is that there are puppets, religion, and sex. In the words of Nina Simone, "'Nuff Said." The hand behind the star puppet Tyrone is the young boy Jason, here played by a riotous Parker Gray. At the behest of his mother, Margery (Shannon McGrann), Jason and his peers Jessica and Timothy (Debbie Ruegsegger and Garrett Storms, respectively) spend their afternoons in a puppet class at Pastor Greg's (Thomas Ward) church. The tight two hours that ensue are surprising, laugh-out-loud funny, and carefully poignant.Parker Gray's exhaustive dual performance steals the show, in no small part to relentless puppeteering and excellent voice-work. McGrann's Margery gives her son a run for it as the play ends up being just as much about parenting as it is about puppets, and her scenes with Storms and Ward drive a more than hysterical subplot. I left tired for the actors, as Schultz's direction leads them around the room, through windows, and on rampages. The show physically moves just as quickly as Askins' plot advances, and the evening that results is more than worth the drive. All of this builds to a thoughtful and creative series of questions addressing the very problems our characters are trying to escape. Through the joy of puppetry, we explore grief, loss, sorrow, and self. Yes, there are still murderous puppets. All of the chaos that unfolds takes place in a 360-degree environment designed by Richard Ouellette, and lit by Keith Parham. The star of the show, Tyrone, is the work of costumer and puppet designer Chelsea M. Warren, and as he would say, really holds the whole show together.
Hand to God at WaterTower is a riotous relief from this Texas August. Between the performances of Gray's Jason/Tyrone and McGrann's Margery, the very "on-trend" immersivity, and possibly my new favorite puppet (sorry Kate Monster), WaterTower's season closer is a must-see. For tickets and more information check out https://watertowertheatre.org/event/hand-to-god.