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A CurtainUp Review
Hand to God
By Elyse Sommer
So is Hand to God a puppet show? Something to which you should have brought a couple of kids? No way. Jason isn't so much holding the puppet, as the other way around. The puppet has taken control of the puppeteer and has morphed from quirky looking appendage, into an animated and opinionated creature who acts on what's going on in the mild mannered Jason's Id.
If you never lived in a Texas suburb and been a member of a fundamentalist church that actually runs Christian puppet ministries, rest assured that Mr. Askins is not inventing Cypress, Texas and churches whose practices include Christian puppet ministries to help teens appreciate the bible. Like Jason's widowed mom Margery, Askins' mother actually ran such a program. Though he left Texas for Brooklyn, he's tapped into his background to create this latest addition to shows about young people's tussles with the Almighty.
Hand to God doesn't sing like The Book of Mormon and Sister Act, nor does it boast a big cast or splashy production values. But it does have Tyrone, the devilishly funny puppet-cum-devil and a nice mix of raunchy black humor and emotional warmth — enough so for its initial run at Ensemble Studio Theatre to be reborn at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theatre.
While there are a couple of new cast members, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is back at the helm to insure perfect teamwork. Luckily, the most necessary team member, puppet-puppeteer Steven Boyer, is also back.
The quirky humor and Boyer's amazingly deft handling of the foul-mouthed, uninhibited Tyrone and the more inhibited Jason had the audience in stitches at the matinee I attended. Some of funniest examples of Boyer's incredible dexterity — like the Jason-Tyrone version of the famous Abbott and Costello Who's on First?" routine— turned into the kind of applause winning show stoppers more common for a musical.
I would have preferred Mr. von Stuelpnagel to trust the material enough not to overdo even the best and funniest scenes. Still this quirky little show, like The Book of Mormons, manages to tackle religious questions and darker impulses without really offending either believers and non believers.
Given that Tyrone, the invader of teenager Jason's left hand and mind, is the true star of the play, the action fittingly begins with a prologue. It's delivered from a small stage at the rear of Beowulf Boritt's church basement where Jason's widowed mother Margery (Geneva Carr) is rehearsing a show as part of the congregation's puppet ministry.
The puppet of course is presenting a revisionist version of the Book of Genesis. It describes a "beginning" when "we were too stupid to be anything but what we were. We didn’t shave. We rutted as we chose, careless in the night." According to our puppet bible interpreter this simplicity got messed up by "some asshole who invented right and wrong and the devil." He adds that since then when sombeody puts himself before the group and acts badly, all it takes to "stay around the camp fire" is to say "The devil made me do it."
That speech will have a familiar ring for followers of the late comedian George Carlin's satiric take on religion. Coming out of the mouth of the puppet designed by Marte Johanne Ekhougen it makes for an aptly amusing opener
Besides Jason: Margery has two other participants in the show she has been assigned to prepare for next Sunday service by Pastor Greg (Mark Kudisch): Timothy ( Bobby Moreno).and Jessica (Sarah Stiles). Timothy is a wise acre with overactive hormones who needs no devil puppet to mouth outrageous comments. Jessica would really prefer Balinese shadow puppetry to what she's being given to work with but pragmatically says that she'll take what's on offer. She also likes Jason so his being there is an added incentive for her being part of the planned pageant.
Askin nicely builds up the plot complications, with various unresolved issues of grief, anger, guilt and physical frustration, exploding over the course of the two acts. The key explosion sees Jason's alter-ego become more and more uncontrollable alter-ego, unleashing heretofore repressed truths and feelings.
Jason's losing control of his good Christian persona is parallelled by his mom. While Pastor Greg's honorable amorous intentions fail to make her feel ready for remarriage, she finds herself succumbing to Timothy's passionate moves on her. Amusing as these over-the-top sexual encounters are, the most potent and hilarious sexual sizzle comes from the hand-to-hand carryings-on between Jessica's puppet Jolene and bad boy Tyrone.
If I were handing out marks, the acting overall would be a straight A. Marc Kudisch manages to make the Pastor come off more as the play's clear-headed, grounding presence rather than a too holier-than-thou and prissy man of God. However, the charismatic actor who's best known as a musical theater star seems to be a bit wasted in this role. Carr ably straddles Margery's somewhat abrupt shifts from kinky sex addict to conflicted widow and mother.
As I've already mentioned, the playwright and director tend to push some of the comic buttons too hard and for too long and the play is bound to run into accusations of piggybacking onto Avenue Q's success. That said, however, Hand to God, stands very much on its own feet as an unpretentious dark comedy that despite a rather grisly separation of Boy and puppet ends on a bright, warm-hearted note. For sure, you'll never again see a sock puppet as just a piece of gussied up cloth.