Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Review: ROBERT ASKINS' HAND TO GOD-BOLDLY GOES WHERE YOUR CHILDRENS' PUPPET SHOW NEVER SHOULD GO at JOBSITE THEATER

NICK HOOP AND CAST DELIVER A DEVILISHLY GOOD TIME THAT CANNOT BE MISSED

BWW Review:  ROBERT ASKINS' HAND TO GOD-BOLDLY GOES WHERE YOUR CHILDRENS' PUPPET SHOW NEVER SHOULD GO at JOBSITE THEATER

ED WARREN: "The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges on which we decide to follow."- from the 2013 film, THE CONJURING

While preparing to see the irreverent and shockingly funny Hand to God, I did not know what to expect. I did however know going in that this is the absolute perfect play for Jobsite Theater to tackle, as I feel that no other theater company in the bay-area could tackle its humor more effortlessly than what the fine folks at Jobsite have accomplished. Robert Askins' foreword in the script says it best, "...this is a blueprint. It is a suggestion. It is a speech bubble in a long conversation. It is an invitation to play." Jobsite hit their mark with this blueprint and has etched in our memories a ballsy, hilarious, and heartbreaking spectacle that is a provocative piece of unabashed panoramic-thrusted vulgarity and humanity that I will soon not forget.

The story is set in a basement of church in Cypress, Texas. It centers on Margery a widow, and her son Jason. Margery runs a puppet ministry club with only three participants. Jason her son, who is a shy, troubled, inhibited boy; Jason's love interest and neighbor Jessica, and an unabashed vulgar/horny troubled nuisance Timothy. Pastor Greg is a "could be" nice man who makes more than one appearance in the basement as a way to check on progress of the "puppet club," in hopes of gaining more attention from Margery. Things go completely off-kilter when Jason's puppet Tyrone becomes possessed by the Devil and sends the congregation in an upheaval of demonic proportions. Profanely verbalizing and becoming the voice for the otherwise inhibited Jason. However sane this may seem things are definitely not what they appear. Askins' play becomes an irreverent, insane, and yet humanized version of our own kind of crazy, and it's the best thing to be seen in theaters at present. We get so bogged down by the mundane and the typical that we forget to let inhibitions out the window, and just for a little while laugh, and laugh is what we did.

One thing I was asked about this play when talking to people about how excited I was to see it, many asked "Does it hate on God?" I think Askins' himself answers this question best in his foreword appearing in the front of the script when he says, "This play does not hate God. It does not hate church or Jesus. It is frustrated by them. It wants them to be better. It wants people to be better and if it hates anything it hates easy answers and people who have stopped looking." Jobsite gives a wonderful testament to this idea here. The cast is out of this world, and as bold and as irreverent as this script is, the cast delivers full-throttle and is a tour de force, unlike anything we've seen in some time.

Katrina Stevenson as Margery is like a drop-a-dime in a jukebox, strap your boots on and order a round of cold ones with the kinfolk. She is sweet in our tea and the perfect tune on an old banjo. Somewhere between a Coal-Miner's Daughter and a Sunday sermon we sense Margery's sadness and understand her heartbreak all while trying to hold it together for her son. She's wounded, but not broken, strong-willed, but damaged and we are hanging on every moment. In an act of retribution, she throws caution and morals to the wind and destroys everything in her path. She's frustrated with God and while we see her struggle we find the depth of her heart driving this unmistakable, unsinkable narrative that would test any faction of faith in even the strongest of believers. Katrina is a marvel on-stage, she is courageous and not afraid to push the limit and it makes for an unmistakably grounded and moving performance that will be talked about for time to come.

Brian Shea as Pastor Greg is full of life and wears his heart on his sleeve. With a delivery that is so humanized and real yet so funny in delivery Brian truly shines and we welcome him back with open arms. One of the best parts of his performance was his almost babbling "word-vomit" inducing plea for love where he truly lays it all out on the table. "...I'm not the biggest man in the world Margery. I'm not so rich or so handsome or so... good. I am not so good. But I got empty arms. Empty arms and ears made just to hear you cry. That's my best shot, Margery. I think we could be good together, real and whole, and if you think there's even a sliver of a section of a portion of a chance I wish you'd give it to me. 'Cause I could sure use a break." Having last seen Mr. Shea in HatTrick's "Waiting for Gadot" this is a welcomed layer peeled back for all to see and it's a truly wonderful job, by an exceptional performer.

Kara Sotakoun's Jessica was a joy to experience. Having seen her in last season's Midsummer Nights Dream this is a comedic work of stellar proportions. She's sweet and endearing, and under the surface brimming with so much gusto. From the moment in the beginning in her creation of Jolene to the overall arch of her character in the play, Ms. Sotakoun takes no prisoners here and her talent shines in every moment on stage. The sex scene between her puppet Jolene and Jason's puppet Tyrone was worthy of a standing ovation and received a welcomed response of applause from the audience. Even looking at the expressions of those at my table and my own gaped mouth experience it was something to be witnessed that will be talked about around the water-cooler for months. Unlike the gap mouth-inducing reaction from the Puppet sequence of Avenue Q which at times felt raunchy and a little strange...there was something weirdly fascinating about this portrayal. This and many more reason's definitely make Hand to God worth the price of admission as this is definitely not your kids' Saturday morning puppet show.

Timothy played exceptionally well by Evan Fineout is the bad boy everyone loves to hate and hates to love. Trouble with a "capital T" and vulgar to boot. We are here for every minute of this performance and kind of revel in the likes of the "bad boys" of the '80s and 90's teen flicks. Christian Slater's "JD" in Heathers, Heath Ledger's Patrick Verona in 10 Thing's I Hate About You, and Judd Nelson's John Bender in The Breakfast Club. He is as crude and vile as they come and every girl's fantasy. He gets on everyone's nerves and even flips off the Pastor at one point, you just laugh at his antics. Evan is a fine actor and he delivers here in every moment. From grabbing his crotch in the delivery of his dialogue to the moment with his pants at his ankles, he is every teenage boy with pent-up sexual energy and it's a performance you can't look away from, and Mr. Fineout should be commended for his work here.

Nick Hoop's Jason/Tyrone is show-stopping. He is extremely present and nuanced in every moment from the prologue to the fall of the lights in Act 2. To take on a role of this magnitude as a performer requires much discipline, however, at the same time, it requires the ability to let inhibitions give way and to give yourself over to the role in which you are portraying. Mr. Hoop does just that with this incredible performance. It's so real and so true to the character that a suspension of disbelief one might often abide by when seeing a show with Actors/Puppets alike is not needed here. Jason is as one with himself as he is with Tyrone and vice versa.

Hoop delivers in every moment, from the time he's conversing with the puppet to the absolution of demonic expression pouring from every vulgar and searing piece of Askins' dialogue. As the show progresses and Tyrone gets more punked-out as the possession takes hold we feel for Jason. He's fearful of what is happening and we sense that heartbreak. Jason is a broken child wanting to be accepted, Tyrone gives him that voice. I will absolutely agree with a colleague when they stated "...a cartoony Norman Bates." However, in this instance, I see the likes of Freddie Highmore's "Bates" shining through Jason and coming full force through Tyrone. It is almost like that moment when Norman Bates dons his Mother's wig and dress long after she's been murdered to make it appear she is still very much alive. It's creepy, eerie, and in this instance also humane, and we buy it hook line and sinker.

Having seen Hoop most recently in Innovocative Theatre's production of Columbinus, I was looking forward to seeing him take the stage again. In Columbinus he was frighting and scary as a school shooter. In Hand to God, he takes his previous work and ups the ante. It's a haunting portrayal so grounded and shockingly good, he is one of the finest young actors the Bay-Area has seen. To simultaneously take on two characters at once is a feat of magnanimous proportions and much like Tyrone we are possessed with this performance and Nick Hoop should be commended for this is the finest work I have seen by a young actor to date.

David Jenkins' delivers a Masterclass of outstanding Artistry in Direction. This show is crazy, it's jaw-dropping, and an irreverent labor of love and we buy into every moment. It is a tight-knit show complete with Heavy Metal induced scene changes that make every Iron Maiden fan want to mosh. Incredibly funny, and unmistakably endearing there is a lot to be said in silence. I think that is the moment that is most effective here. So much is said and delivered that even in the middle of laughing the beauty of non-verbals delivered between the characters is something masterful. A quick-paced two-act laugh riot grounded in heart that you have to see to believe.

Brian Smallheer's set complete with a Murphy bed, and a car scene "a-la" Rocky Horror Picture Show makes this show set in a church basement work. Its unmistakable child "Sunday School" green is as shocking and perfect as the antics that take place on stage. Littered with bean bags and chairs complete with tennis balls on the legs brings us all back to our Sunday Schools days. My favorite moment was the complete juxtaposition of the sticky-sweet "Jesus Loves Me" posters to the almost graffiti-laden anarchy that covers the set in Act 2. It was like Mr. Rogers meets a Family Guy episode it is so in your face and perfect in every way. Jo Averill-Snell's lighting is wonderful here. It's as if we are along for a child's tale and thrust into a world much like Percy Jackson when the characters encounter Hades. It's like flying headfirst into fire and brimstone when Tyrone manically maneuvers through different levels of possession and the red lighting in contrast to the brick and the green is great. The puppets which were designed by Linda Roethke and constructed by Suzanne Cooper Morris are wonderful. Tyrone is exquisitely constructed and my favorite was seeing his transition from act 1 to act 2. Technically in all aspects, Jobsite does wonderful work in this newly reconfigured-Jaeb space, and the show lends well to the industrial feel of the Jaeb making it a perfect show for this stage.

Robert Askins' Hand to God is a bold in your face labor-of-love. One you must see and experience. This show is definitely not intended for children. So if you are looking for an Adult-Themed puppet show with some heart and southern charm, then Hand to God is the ticket. Like a glass of Southern Comfort, this show is smooth and has a bite. Smart as a whip and devilishly funny this is one ticket you will not want to miss out on.

With a limited-run in the Socially-Distanced Jaeb Theater until March 14th, you better "...Call Tyrone," and secure your tickets today.

Photo Credit: Jobsite Theater


Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

Related Articles View More Tampa/St. Petersburg Stories

From This Author Drew Eberhard