You know when a show starts with a puppet telling the audience about the origin of the devil, that this is not going to be a standard show. HAND TO GOD, besides being a Southern colloquialism that refers to telling the truth, no matter how outlandish; is also an excellent name for the show now playing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
The play is incredibly funny, outrageously bizarre, and deliberately provocative in a way can simultaneously entertain and confound the audience. It’s almost like playwright Robert Askins decided to combine the puppets of AVENUE Q with a little religious impertinence from THE BOOK OF MORMON and thought to up the stakes by making it a lot more provocative, dirtier, and derisive.
It all starts in a church basement in Texas, where Margery (DeAnna Driscoll), a newly widowed and increasingly stressed out woman and mother, teaches the teens of the church in their Christian puppetry club. It’s not a very popular club, with only her son Jason (Caleb Foote), local delinquent Timmy (Garrett Marshall), and bespectacled Jessica (Christina L. Flynn) participating. Most are there because they have nowhere else to go, not because of an undying love of scripture or puppets. Pastor Greg (Jason Heil) rounds out this cast as the well-meaning, but desperately lonely pastor of the church.
Poor Jason is anxious and miserable, shy, with a slight facial tick; he is unable to stand up for himself. As his angsts become intolerable, his puppet Tyrone (also played by Foote) gets a life of his own, telling the others exactly what he thinks of them, since Jason seems to have lost control of his left hand. As the play continues, Tyrone gets darker, meaner, and more aggressive. Tyrone plots, he schemes, he can make lights bulbs burst at will, and seems to be channeling something a lot more Satanic than this church basement is equipped to handle.
Caleb Foote as Jason and Tyrone is remarkable in balancing performances as both the cowering Jason and the aggressive Tyrone. He is not a ventriloquist; you always see him when he is speaking in a deeper more growly voice as Tyrone, you see his arm manipulate the puppet, and yet there is a marked difference between the two performances. When Jason speaks it is a plea, when Tyrone speaks it is a bark with teeth – literally as Timothy finds out in the second act.
Is Tyrone possessed? Is Jason? It’s hard to say what is true; after all how did Tyrone make those lights explode? How does one tackle a potentially possessed puppet? As the Book of Matthew instructs, “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”. This may seem figurative to most, but in Jason’s situation he figures that it’s sound advice and starts looking for a hammer for his troublesome left hand.
DeAnna Driscoll is very funny as Margery, a woman whose life is unraveling as she makes bad choices to cope with her sense of uncertainty and helplessness in her life. Her emotional distress becomes increasingly clear as she gives in to problematic impulses to keep her anxiety at bay.
Christina L. Flynn as Jessica brings some sweetness and warmth to the show as the only character that seems to know who she is and what she wants. Of course, she has a puppet as well (it was a puppet club, remember?) and Flynn is very funny as the French and flirtatious Jolene puppet. Warning: if you thought the puppet sex in AVENUE Q was graphic, you are in no way prepared for what these puppets do to each other.
Garrett Marshall is funny and endearing as Timothy, whose abandonment issues have him act out, looking for love and affection in all the wrong places.
Jason Heill as Pastor Greg is both comfortingly bland and a bit smarmy, the later highlighted in his less than subtle consolations to Margery. He may have no idea what to do when a demented puppet takes up residence in his church basement, but he does step up and at least try to help regardless of his wounded pride.
Ultimately, this play is about personal responsibility and those darker urges that whisper to everyone in their weakest moments. How each character deals with pressure and their own base touches on problems with unexpressed or unresolved issues. Would it help if people were a little bit more honest and a bit less preoccupied with following the rules of what society deems acceptable? Would we take responsibility for our thoughts and actions if we didn’t have “the Devil made me do it” as a fall back excuse?
There is a lot packed into this script and it can show when some of the actions seem a bit obvious in an intention to shock, motivations can seem easily resolved, and the religious critique can seem a little too on point. Directed by Sam Woodhouse this play keeps a brisk pace, which only helps build the momentum through some crazy antics on stage. All done on a turntable set by Robin Roberts that goes from church basement, to office, to puppet stage with ease.
HAND TO GOD can seem over the top, with its profoundly irreverent satire, and its satanic sock puppet, but it is also incredibly smart, and funny. If you think you might be offended by language, situations, and very graphic puppet sex, I promise that you will be. You may want to close your eyes in embarrassment for some of the characters, or cringe and laugh as Tyrone goes on a tirade, but I promise it is also unbelievably funny. My hand to God it’s true.
HAND TO GOD is playing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through November 12th. Ticket, show time, and events information can be found at www.sdrep.org