BWW Review: HAND TO GOD at Dezart Performs
Hand To God
at Dezart Performs
In the hands of Director Michael Shaw, grief has never been funnier.
Set in a church basement (which is in and of itself hilarious, given the plot) Robert Askins' Obie Award-winning Hand To God isn't preachy, it's just the opposite; it's rip-roaring, devilish fun that's non-stop laughs. Did I mention puppets? Yeah, there's puppets. But before we get into that, let's talk about the set.
Thomas L. Valach has consistently given us eye-candy throughout the seasons, and this is no exception. With the assistance of Cecilia Orosco's terrific props, Valach's set is Romper Room for Jesus. The colorful room has a giant teddy bear, and is otherwise slathered in cheerful God and Jesus posters, as well as a small puppet theater in the corner with the words "Christ Ka Teers" written on the top; the bright red satin skirt below is embossed with a gold cross. Theater-goers should meticulously drink in all of that glory to God before the second act because everything, literally, goes to hell, including the set pieces. It is brilliantly realized and as much a character in the play as the actors and the puppets.
The setup: Margery (Yo Younger) has talked Pastor Greg (Roy Abramsohn) into letting her teach a hand-puppet class (the afore-mentioned Christ Ka Teers) in the basement of their church. She's six-months widowed, and this is her effort to get her son, Jason (Eddie Vona) and herself out of their home, and away from their grief. Also in the class are Jessica (Brenna Williams) who is about Jason's age, and Timothy (Danny Gomez) an older teen and a disrupter who says he's only here because he has nowhere else to go. Jessica and Timothy spar on the regular, and while Margery tries to stop the madness, Tyrone and Jason perform "Yes, Jesus Loves Me."
There are some wonderful and explosive moments in the wake of Jessica, Jason and Tyrone being banished outside so Margery can deal with Timothy; I won't ruin it.
What I will tell you is that, outside, Jessica is encouraging Jason to show her more of what he and Tyrone can do as a puppeteer. Jason and Tyrone do a quick "Who's on First" that makes Jessica laugh. But Jason thinks she's laughing at him, and that's when Tyrone takes on a life of his own. He pushes Jessica away by saying awful things to her, and she runs away as a stunned Jason rips the puppet off his hand.
But Tyrone is a bunny-boiler, he will NOT be ignored, and Jason wakes to find a very changed puppet attached to his arm again. And that's when things go merrily along the way to demonic possession, exorcism, and straight to comedy-gold hell.
Let's talk about Yo Younger's Marjory. Marjory's well-put together look, calm demeanor, and cheerful face are just an illusion. Inside she is wracked with pain and confusion. And when things get decidedly darker for her, she eventually gives in with madcap, over-the-top abandon. When she's not delicately trying to avoid the pastor's advances, she's revealing another side we didn't see coming, and then reverts back again. Younger's performance is complex and fraught with real emotion not to mention balls-out physical comedy chops. There are a great deal of layers to this character, and Younger shows us all of them. While I haven't seen all of Younger's performances (she's very much in demand as an actress) her turn as Margery is now my personal favorite.
Tall, dark, and handsome, Gomez's sullen portrayal of angsty teen Timothy dots all of the 'i's and crosses all the "t"s. When he's alone with Marjory, he drops all the bravado and simply becomes a love-struck teen who's crazy about teach. Gomez is very much Ross in Friends; he's a bumbling guy and happy to be anywhere near Marjory. It's very, very funny.
The precocious Jessica is well-cast in Williams. With assistance from clever Costume Designer, Aalsa Lee, Williams looks to be no more than a tween herself, but her delivery of sharp barbs, and her general aplomb are only upset by Tyrone's blatant rankle for her. But if anyone in this play has any understanding of who they really are, with the chops to survive, it's Jessica. Williams approaches it all with gusto and as much aplomb as her character.
If you've ever watched real life murder reenactments set at a church on TV, Pastor Dan is the guy who manipulates hot married parishioners to murder their spouses in the name of love. Except in this case, she's a hot grieving widow, and he doesn't want her to kill anyone, he wants her to either sleep with him, or love him. He uses his churchy power as Pastor to try and make that happen. Margery is clearly immune to his advances, and she tries to circumvent them with grace. Abramsohn's Pastor Greg is handsome and charismatic, but he's a slave to his feelings for Margery. His advances are completely inappropriate, and although he doesn't say it, telling her the puppets will perform at Sunday Service is Pastor Greg's punishment. But Abramsohn's portrayal isn't evil. He manages to squeak out godliness while teetering on the edge of creepy. Act Two just might change his feelings though.
That brings us to Jason/Tyrone who asks the question: who is the puppet, and who is the puppet master? I actually don't care. Folks, Vona's performance as both characters is as good as theater gets. There is nary a whisper of Jason in Tyrone and vice versa. Although Tyrone lives as an extension of Jason's hand and arm, they are two distinct characters who have explosive conversations between them and with others. Vona is so good at playing two characters at once that the audience watched Tyrone when he spoke, then eyes shifted seamlessly to Jason and rapid-fire back again.
And that, dear reader, is where I will leave you in our story, at the precipice of a hellish and equally hilarious second Act.
I will tell you that Clark Duggar's sound design is audience chat-worthy, Derrick McDaniel's lighting is spot on, and big props go to the behind-the-scenes prop assistants who transformed the puppet room basement into kiddie hell.
On a final note: I read some reviews on previous productions, and those reviewers came away with an entirely different message than what I thought the play was about. So, I suggest you just find out for yourself. You'll likely be laughing so hard it might not even matter.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. But don't let the puppets confuse you. This play is most definitely not for kids.
Hand To God runs November 8-17 at the Pearl McManus Theater, 314 Cahuilla, Palm Springs, CA