BWW Review: HAND TO GOD is a Disturbing, Complex, and Funny Look at Good Versus Evil…with Puppets

BWW Review: HAND TO GOD is a Disturbing, Complex, and Funny Look at Good Versus Evil…with Puppets

Dark comedy and puppets seem to be a natural link, given the number of film and theatre stories that have incorporated both in the last several years. Coal Mine Theatre's season-closing production of HAND TO GOD, written by Robert Askins, examines the duality of man and the struggle between good and evil through the eyes of a young teenager struggling with his emotions, family, and a particularly vocal and troublemaking hand puppet named Tyrone.

HAND TO GOD is absolutely not for children, given its blasphemous, crude, and dark themes. Set in the crafts room of a Texas Christian church, instructor Margery (Nicole Underhay) leads her son Jason (Frank Cox-O'Connell) and other kids from the congregation Jessica (Amy Keating) and Timothy (Francis Melling) through puppet-making and performances. Their lives seem fairly straightforward at first, but as Jason's puppet Tyrone begins to take control over what he says and does Margery and Jason's lives become more and more complex.

Cox-O'Connell is phenomenal as the awkward, meek Jason. His soft voice, fidgety movements and emotive facial expressions solidify Jason as a fully-realized character within his first moments on stage, and his ability to switch between the boy and his gravelly-voiced puppet makes it seem as though there are two separate characters, rather than a man with a hand puppet. In some cases, grown adults playing children can be hard to believe but Cox-O'Connell is a convincing youth struggling with love, grief, religion, and his fractured relationship with his mother.

As Jason's frazzled mother Margery, Underhay delivers a high-intensity performance throughout the play's 1-hour and 45-minute run time. At first she's the perfect southern mother, but as Jason begins to struggle with Tyrone her imperfections and issues begin to appear. Underhay portrays Margery and her faults honestly, through uncomfortable interactions with other characters and full breakdowns where her screams and the sounds of thrown set pieces reverb through the tiny Coal Mine theatre to great effect.

Fleshing out the ensemble, Keating and Melling bring two very different characters to life. Keating's Jessica is sweet, offering Jason a much-needed friend during his difficulties, while Melling's Timothy is the traditional schoolyard bully. He's an intimidating presence onstage and drives a large amount of the uncomfortable scenes in the story.

As the only other adult in HAND TO GOD, Pastor Greg (Ted Dykstra) is a stereotypical portrayal of modern Christian pastors. Dykstra leans into the caricature successfully, at times coming across as the play's own Ned Flanders from the sweater vest down to the southern accent and refusal to swear. His characterization helps to enhance the overall vibe of the church and increase religion's (somewhat-useless) role against the evil Tyrone in a largely-family oriented story.

While the puppets in this show are literally attached to the actors, they seem to have lives of their own. With puppetry direction and design by Marcus Jamin, the antagonist Tyrone is an unassuming menace in Jason's life. Other puppets, especially Jessica's Jolene, help to drive the story, but the main focus is kept on Jason and Tyrone to great effect. Cox-O'Connell is highly successful in having Tyrone articulate and move in a way separate from what Jason can and does do.

Aside from a stellar cast, Anahita Dehbonehie's set design utilizes the minimal amount of space in the theatre masterfully. The transition from the puppet room to a playground, achieved through pulling swings out from behind a curtain, is only outperformed by the immediate switch to Margery and Jason's family car. Lighting (Nick Blais) and sound design (Bram Gielen) help to portray the scenes, with a shift from typical day lighting in the puppet room to garish, stark red making Tyrone's actions much more sinister, in a somewhat stereotypical manner - although references to the Exorcist and other classic Hollywood-horror film tropes inject humour into otherwise dark scenes.

HAND TO GOD is a deep dive into the human psyche, family relations, and the struggle between good and evil that's persisted since the beginning - stated aptly during the opening monologue and followed throughout the narrative. While the subject matter is deeply uncomfortable at times, black comedy makes the story easier to digest, although squeamish or sensitive audiences might struggle with some of the more unsettling topics. Regardless, it poses some interesting questions about modern-day religion, grief, and the very human struggle between right and wrong.


HAND TO GOD runs through May 12 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto, ON.

For more information or to buy tickets, visit http://www.coalminetheatre.com/hand-to-god

Main photo credit: Kristina Ruddick



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