BWW Review: Riveting and Hilarious HAND TO GOD is a Must-See at Burbage Theatre Co
"The devil made me do it is" is often said when one is caught doing something they shouldn't have. You won't need to say that about going to see Burbage Theatre Company's current production of Hand to God, because you absolutely should go and see it and you should not wait for the devil or anyone else to make you do it.
Written by Robert Askins, the play takes us into a Lutheran church in Texas where the "puppet club" is working on their puppets for an upcoming performance before the congregation. Guided by Margery, a local suburban mom who has just recently lost her husband, the kids of unspecified age include her son Jason, the girl-next-door, Jessica, and the angsty, rebellious town bad-boy, Timothy. Things get strange and then a whole lot stranger when Jason's puppet, Tyrone, starts exhibiting some very outlandish and bizarre behavior, leading to the realization that either the puppet or the puppeteer is possessed by the devil himself.
Don't let the idea of demonic puppet possession sway you away from seeing this hilarious and insightful play, which was nominated for the Best Play Tony Award in 2015. Askins' writing creates a very real world populated by instantly recognizable and relatable characters, going through situations that run the gamut from ordinary to totally weird. All of it is handled with honesty and is grounded in some way in reality, even when what's happening is completely unreal. The script is undeniably laugh-out-loud funny but also manages to deliver moments of true poignancy and heartfelt emotion while delivering messages or themes that will linger in the audience's mind for some time.
Director Kate Kataja embraces the insane elements of Askins' script and ratchets them up to eleven in all the best ways. Every moment gets its due, whether it's a quiet, emotional moment between a mother and son or raunchy puppet sex (yes, that does happen). Kataja makes sure all of those instances, big or small, land just how they should, ensuring that the big laughs happen, but so do the moments that make the audience stop and think. One disappointing thing is that more than once there are scenes with actors staged facing upstage, their backs to the audience. When seating is in the round or even three-quarter, those moments are to be expected, but in this more traditional proscenium-style setup with audience on only one side, those scenes should be able to be staged so the audience can see the actor's faces, rather than having to stare at their backsides.
That's especially true when you have an ensemble of actors this good doing work this special. Kataja has put together a fantastic group of performers who all have stellar stage presence and chemistry, working perfectly as individuals and as a team. Leading the way is Brian Kozak as Jason/Tyrone, in one of the best performances by a local actor you will see this year. In this tour-de-force, Kozak perfectly creates both a meek, timid adolescent boy and a horrifying, vulgar, evil demonic puppet, bringing each to life with equal success. Both his character work and his puppetry sills are wonderful and demand to be seen.
As Jason's struggling mother, Melissa Penick is brilliant in a fully-realized and highly emotional performance. Her anxiety is very real a she tries desperately to hold it all together while clinging to her religious faith for guidance and support. Her scenes with Andrew Iacovelli as Timothy, the local "bad boy," are hilarious and the two of them work exceptionally well together. It's a pleasure to watch two confident actors trusting themselves and each other and just giving their all to a scene. Individually, Iacovelli is among this area's best local actors and he does not disappoint here in another great performance.
Another stellar performance is from Michael Thibeault as Pastor Greg. There are a few moments when Thibeault seems like he might take the Pastor into the territory of caricature, but he veers away from that and makes the man more nuanced and layered than might be expected at first. He has some really strong moments later in the play, as the Pastor works to exorcise the demons from the boy and his puppet. Rounding out the cast is Maggie Papa as Jessica, the least developed character in Askins' script. Still, Papa does a very nice job, imbuing Jessica with true life and real emotion, and she has great chemistry with Kozak. The scene towards the end when she attempts her own exorcism of Jason's demons is a perfect portrait of two teenagers just trying to figure it all out, albeit while surrounded by ridiculous circumstances.
While these actors deliver some uniformly fantastic performances, the technical elements supporting their work are just as good as Burbage fills their new space to spectacular effect. Baron E. Pugh's set design is really perfect, immersing the audience in a very real and very familiar church basement classroom. It's like Pugh went to a church, removed their basement community room, and installed it into the Pawtucket theatre's space, every detail is so carefully taken care of. Jessica Winward's lighting design is equally perfect, creating moments and scenes that happen elsewhere, transporting the actors and audience skillfully to those other locations. There are also some very fun moments of possession filling the stage with demonic lighting effects.
It should be noted, this play contains mature language, themes, and situations and is appropriate for adult audiences only. Having said that, grab all of your adult friends and get to this devilishly great production as soon as you can.
Hand to God runs through December 8 at Burbage Theatre Company's space at 59 Blackstone Ave in Pawtucket. Show times are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students) and are available by visiting the company's website at www.burbagetheatre.org. For more information, contact Burbage at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Picutred: Brian Kozak. Photo by Maggie Hall.