Jason is a quiet fellow, navigating puberty, helping his mother after the death of his father, and pursuing his particular interest in sock puppetry. But something shifts when his mother introduces sock puppets to the church as a youth group activity. Was it the proximity to God that turned Tyrone or was his devilish proclivity just laying in wait, biding his time until he had some real ammo? Will the small town of Cypress, Texas ever really know what really happened in that church basement?
First and foremost, Robert Askins’s script is a wild romp of a story. Think Shaun of the Dead or Alice in Slasherland but with a large mural of Jesus overlooking the entire saga. The basic premise is that Jason (Philip Lynch) is a normal teen with a crush on Jessica (Michelle Ny) and a hatred of Timothy (Ryan Morgan). His father died recently so his mother Margery (Merridy Eastman) is hoping to find some purpose in volunteering to run a puppetry workshop with her church’s youths. The poor woman, though, is being hounded by Pastor Greg (Gerard Carroll), who feels he is the perfect shoulder to cry on, and Timothy, who is bewitched by their bantering (read: disciplinary) relationship. But, oh, it gets a lot worse than a paedophilic relationship between a middle-aged widow and a teenage bad boy when Tyrone (Lynch), Jason’s sock puppet, awakes with the voice of the devil and begins to create untold havoc. Will Tyrone help Jason learn to stand up to his bullies or will he bring the whole world down around them?
The direction of this script was excellently handled by Alexander Berlage with an eye for its strengths of shock humour and placing imperfect characters in deeply uncomfortable situations. In particular, Berlage nailed the tone of the production with a balance of absurdity and earnestness that was paced in time with the rapidly escalating stakes. This was equally reflected in the production design from the set by Jeremy Allen and Emma White to the lighting design by Phoebe Pilcher to the sound design by Daniel Herten. To begin, the production opened in a church basement complete with wood panelling, dingy orange carpet, and an unforgettable mural but the transition from Jesus’ domain to Tyrone’s was stark. Hybrid, mutant toys straight out of Sid’s closet hung from the ceiling while ultraviolet graffiti glowed in the darkness. In screeching harmony, the glowing paint echoed the acidic lighting design that cast blue and green across the stage, turning this House of God into something swampier, more radio-active. The clashes in the design and choices to lean lurid rather than realistic strongly demonstrated Berlage’s approach of letting the story, the characters, the setting get as big as they needed to.
What really allowed Hand To God to work, though, was the cast. These characters were quirky, flawed, cringe-worthy but played with bare-faced earnestness that was uncontrollably funny. Lynch as the central Jekyll & Hyde was sympathetic whichever side you took and his dynamic with Ny was sweet, despite the circumstances. At the same time, Carroll and Morgan did commendably well playing deeply unlikeable men with very little self-awareness in their characters. They were equally believable in Timmy’s snivelling and Pastor Greg’s skin-crawling polite smile. But special mention should be made of Eastman’s portrayal of Marjery, a woman doing her best in the face of rowdy men (and boys), guilt about her angsty son, and the wrath of a demented spirit. Eastman’s comic timing made many scenes and her commitment to the role was remarkable. These are not the type of characters regularly played on stage and these renditions are well worth seeing.
Askins’s script under Berlage’s direction was a wild, quirky, cringy, and laugh-out-loud romp. Shockingly, Hand To God will show it’s not a great stretch of the imagination to envisage the devil possessing your latest hobby, either.
Hand To God is running at the Old Fitz Theatre from February 24th – March 26th
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