BWW Review: Two Fists Up for HAND TO GOD
After seeing HAND TO GOD, you may wish you'd brought your spiritual advisor or psychotherapist with you, either for consolation, confession, or calming your endorphins. Because Robert Askins's play is an unnerving, ferociously funny, hysterically startling, and very dark experience that will cause you to look in the mirror twice and reflect on what makes you/us human.
In co-production with Phoenix Theatre, Stray Cat Theatre's Ron May has directed (in his inimitable and wizardly way) a loony and engaging descent through the gates of humor into the abyss of merciless satire. It's kind of like entering Dante's Circles of Hell only to discover that Señor Wences's Johnny has been possessed and is now a sock puppet named Tyrone.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Askins once said that all writers "vibrate on a different frequency" and that, for him, "that frequency is anarchic rage, lethal perversity, and sex, blood, and Jesus." His observation hints about the terrible (but ultimately redemptive) trials that unfold in HAND TO GOD.
The setting for the play is a church basement, in the rural holy rolling enclave of Cypress, Texas (where Askins, in fact, grew up and his mother ran a Christian puppet ministry), that turns into a hotbed of pain and dysfunction, accusations and confessions, and an ample amount of human as well as puppet sex.
Margery (Elyse Wolf), newly widowed and struggling to keep it all together, is teaching a puppet class to three teenagers: her son Jason (Eric Zaklukiewicz), withdrawn, self-conscious, and grieving the loss of his father; Jessica (Michelle Chin), sweet and nerdy; and Timothy (Vaughn Sherman), encumbered with a chip on his shoulder and a hard-on for teacher. This is no Breakfast Club ~ far from it! Everyone, including the church's Pastor Greg (Louis Farber), who has entreated Margery not only to embrace his waiting arms but invited her class to perform at an upcoming service, has the hots for someone else.
It's not until, Tyrone, the shaggy headed sock puppet dressed in a knit suit, who belongs to Jason rears his terrifying and foul-mouthed head that all the screws come unloose.
Correction! Actually, Jason belongs to Tyrone. As things progress (or regress), Tyrone literally gets out of hand (the puppet's possessed!) and has the upper hand in unabashedly channeling Jason's impulses and feelings and creating chaos in his wake.
Tyrone is the metaphor for the evil that may lurk within us all. His Prologue, a screed on mankind's unkind and stormy evolution, hints too as what's to come and what's to be undone.
Eric Zaklukiewicz is amazing, embodying convincingly two diametrically opposed characters, possessed of two different voices and manners. His transitioning between Tyrone the devil and Jason the repressed angel is a work of total mastery, an absolute tour de force.
Elyse Wolf delivers a powerhouse performance as mother Margery, radiating the fierce determination of a woman trying to cope with the chaos and mixed feelings that come with widowhood. She's a cocktail that is a perfect blend of vulnerability, raw sexuality, and explosive emotion.
Michelle Chin conveys Jessica's shyness with an authenticity that is a delight to behold and then turns the tables when she demonstrates her own proficiency in puppetry with Jolene in a sex scene that knocks everybody's socks off.
Vaughn Sherman is a great bad boy whose lust and lack of inhibitions rattle the basement walls.
Louis Farber is beautifully controlled as the pastor who assiduously tries to hold the church walls together but betrays his reverential nature in a failed seduction of Margery that has all the subtlety of an evangelist preacher.
The relationships in HAND TO GOD are strained and violent because truths that need to be shared are repressed and when revealed are convulsive, because honesty has consequences. For all of its storm and stress, HAND TO GOD forces basic questions (once you've stopped laughing and have your breath back) about what defines us as human beings. How bad would we really like to be if we could be? If and when we fall, is the fall the fault of an external force ("The devil made me do it!) or a recognition that we remain animals, albeit "evolved," with the propensity for both good and evil, subject to the contradictions of social convention?
So it is that such profound matters are baked into such an outrageously funny and unorthodox play!
So, if you're a glutton for paroxysms of nervous laughter and unmitigated irony, then you must see HAND TO GOD, but don't be taking your kids. This is adults only entertainment with a Faustian message.
HAND TO GOD runs through February 25th in Phoenix Theatre's Hormel Theatre.
Photo credit to Reg Madison