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BWW Review: Jobsite Theater and the Straz Presents Robert Askins' HAND TO GOD - Puppet Sex, Demonic Possession & One Hell of a Cast

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Nick Hoop Gives the Performance of a Lifetime.

BWW Review: Jobsite Theater and the Straz Presents Robert Askins' HAND TO GOD - Puppet Sex, Demonic Possession & One Hell of a Cast

Father Karras: "How long are you going to stay in Regan?" The Demon: "Until she rots in earth." --from the 1973 film, The Exorcist

"The devil is in that puppet and we are goin' to exorcise him right out and have everyone back home by midnight. That's what I want and that's what Jesus wants and that's what's gonna happen. Right?" --Margery in HAND TO GOD

Jim and Tammy Bakker, the televangelists who created an uproar in the 1980's with their religious theme park and several scandals, started out as Christian TV puppeteers ("Christcateers"). In 1986, when I visited Heritage USA--their Biblical Disney World famous for its water slide--I ventured into the toy shop on Main Street called Noah's Ark. In it, they sold recreations of Tammy's famous puppet, Susie Moppet. (On eBay today, imitation Susie Moppets sell from $19.99 to $144.00 mint in box.) Before PTL, Jim and Tammy made a name for themselves as puppet ministers on the Pat Robertson channel, CBN, and even had their own show aimed at children, "Come on Over," featuring a slew of their evangelical puppets. They released several records with the two future Christian leaders (whose fall from grace was decades away) along with their puppet "friends."

Imagine if Susie Moppet was suddenly possessed by Satan, like a Linda Blair hand puppet in need of an exorcism, and you get an idea of what's in store for you in HAND TO GOD.

I thought of Jim, Tammy and the adorably cheesy Susie Moppet while watching Robert Askins' brilliant play about a Christian puppet possessed by the devil. This is one of the most scorching, irreverent, funny and touching plays I've ever experienced. It's the perfect show for Jobsite Theater, a company that picks provocative, smart, ballsy and hilarious or heartbreaking works that otherwise might never see the light of day in our area.

HAND TO GOD may be my favorite Jobsite show in years (and I've seen several dozen). I swear, my hand to God, that you've never seen anything quite like it.

Set in Texas, it centers around a widow, Margery (Katrina Stevenson), who runs a Christian puppet club in the basement of a church. There are only three attendees: Margery's inhibited son, Jason (Nick Hoop); a neighbor (and the hidden apple of Jason's eye), Jessica (Kara Sotakoun); and a problem child, Timmy (Evan Fineout), clad in head to toe black. Pastor Greg (Brian Shea), a seemingly nice guy shlub, keeps making appearances in the basement, obviously wanting Margery for something beyond companionship. Things get out of whack when Jason's puppet, Tyrone, looking not unlike Rug Rats' Chuckie Finster (without the glasses), is possessed by Satan and profanely verbalizes his secret desires and inner thoughts. But that description makes HAND TO GOD seem somewhat ordinary, and it's anything but. It's one of the most jubilantly zany rides the theater can offer.

It also boasts one hell of a cast.

Katrina Stevenson's Margery is like a really odd country song sprung to life. She's a lost, low rent Norma Rae, the Shirley Partridge of puppets. Ms. Stevenson is so strong, an acting locomotive of sorts, and her destructive sex scene with a minor is both shocking and hilarious. We sense Margery's desperation, and we understand her motives. She sees through Pastor Greg's advances, and is repelled by them, but we also know she is a broken woman and does things as a sort of retribution against God for turning her life to seed. Her world is lost, and instead of trying to repair it, she decides to destroy it further. Ms. Stevenson is always compelling onstage, but she goes beyond that here. It's a remarkably courageous performance.

Evan Fineout's Timothy is what Pastor Greg calls "a troubled kid." And with this fine young actor, it's the little moments that matter: Throwing puppet stuffing at a friend or rubbing his chest and crotch when he says sexually charged dialogue. He finds some very funny physical bits, like a tiny kick of a chair after a bellowing screech. His deflating balloon middle finger to Pastor Greg is one of my favorite moments in the show. When he exits the stage in Act 2, desperate with his pants around his ankles, you wanted the audience to applaud.

They did applaud Kara Sotakoun's exit, after an incredible puppet sex scene that puts Avenue Q and Team America; World Police to shame. Ms. Sotakoun makes the most of her role, and the sex scene between Jessica's puppet, Jolene, and Hoop's Tyrone must be witnessed, gazed upon with gaped mouths, and experienced to be believed. It's a whammy of a moment, the Sistine Chapel of puppet sex scenes. It's the sequence that you will talk about for days, weeks even, unable to shake the thought of thrusting puppets, humping, screaming "Jeeeesus!" in orgasmic delight. There are many reasons to see HAND OF GOD, but this moment stands out as the one to beat.

Brian Shae as the excitably friendly Pastor Greg tackles his part with so much gusto and heart. There's a moment when he's so frustrated and desperate, trying to pick up Margery, that he almost goes into convulsions. It's a welcome return to the stage of one of our area's finest actors, who's funny here but also heartbreakingly real at times.

And then there's Nick Hoop.

I first saw Mr. Hoop perform at a Thespian festival ten years ago. He was only 14 years old, and even though he still had teenage enthusiasm, he seemed wise and otherworldly at such a young age. I would attend various high school plays where Mr. Hoop always stood out, whether it was a rather nonchalant Thernardier in Les Miserables or an Oscar in Sweet Charity who stole the show. Since then, he has appeared on our local stages numerous times, and each performance leaves us with a mystery of sorts, whether in The Iceman Cometh, Stupid F**king Bird, or a mime in The Fantastiks (which also used puppets but not by Hoop). In Columbinus, his performance was one of the best of the year as a truly scary school shooter who would haunt your nightmares more than Freddie Krueger could ever hope to do.

But none of those performances, all so good and unique, prepared me for Hoop's work in HAND TO GOD. I know Jason/Tyrone had been on his bucket-list and I certainly see why. It plays to his strengths as an actor, mainly because he gets to show off two characters at the same time--one of them growing more and more perverse as the play ticks on. It's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets the Muppets. He's so intensely focused that we don't have to suspend our disbelief too far to feel that Tyrone is a living entity on Jason's arm. And yet we feel sorry for this boy who can't help the horror that has been inflicted on and in him. Hoop's possessed Tyrone gets darker, more harrowing, as the show progresses (the puppet also turns physically more old school punk, right down to his orange mohawk). And even when Tyrone is stripped from Jason's grip, we see that his arm is still demonically possessed, and we buy into it 100%.

Donning a striped shirt, he's like a psychotic Peanuts character, a cartoony Norman Bates. Forget Anthony Hopkins in Magic or Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night. Hoop's work is astounding. His puppet spasms are unlike anything I've ever observed. And yet there's heart, and heartbreak, underneath it all. It's not all just sound and fury; there's a real there there. It's a towering performance, instantly pushing Hoop to the forefront of our area's top actors.

David Jenkins' direction is superb; you can feel the joy in the work here, the crazy fun. That said, wacky as the play may seem, it's also quite sane, and there are some moments of silent beauty. It's incredibly fast paced but never rushed.

Each scene is woven together by a hard rock classic, a heavy metal wet dream, the beat booming during the seemless set changes. I loved all of the song selections, even a particularly vomitous piano version of "Jesus Loves Me" (though the use of "Mrs. Robinson" at one point seemed a bit too obvious for my tastes with what was happening onstage).

Brian Smallheer's workman-like set, a church basement, is littered with shoddy feel good "JESUS LOVES YOU" posters and overused beanbag chairs. The doors are painted the ugliest green you can imagine, and the concrete walls give us the feeling of a prison. I like the small details, like the tennis balls on the legs of the chairs. After intermission, we see the puppet-devil's destruction, the walls splattered with "666," pentagrams, and "HAIL SATAN" graffiti in red. Jo Averill-Snell's lighting thrusts us into Dante's Inferno, an underworld playground, blazing red as Tyrone zooms further down his highway to hell. Even a minor bit, like headlights reflected in the church windows, is beautifully accomplished. The puppets, designed by Linda Roethke and constructed by Suzanne Cooper Morris, feel like living entities. And Tyrone especially is a work of art.

HAND TO GOD is such a wild journey that I didn't want it to end. I wish it had been a ride at the now defunct Heritage USA theme park. Wouldn't you give anything to witness Tammy Faye's Susie Moppet engage in puppet sex and hear her scream "Motherf*cker!" at the top of her lungs?

Needless to say, HAND TO GOD is obviously not for children. It plays at the Jaeb Theater in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts until March 14th. The Straz is very careful about Covid protocols, and patrons feel very safe sitting socially distanced there.


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