Hand to God
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
November 6, 2011
Should you find yourself in need of some thanksgiving and hallelujahs, get thee to the Ensemble Studio Theatre where Robert Askins’s new play, Hand to God, will be showing through November 20th. Developed at the Southhampton Playwrighting Conference at Stony Brook this past summer, this is a hilarious, so-wrong-it’s-right tale, set in a small Texan town, about a boy, his sock puppet, and a fundamentalist Christian ministry gone terribly awry. Lest ye think this is some gentle yarn about faith and forgiveness, this is a story with teeth—and it goes for the jugular.
Margery (Geneva Carr) is a recently widowed mother and Sunday School teacher trying to get a local puppet ministry off the ground to spread the gospel. She has enlisted some of the area’s high school students to serve as puppeteers: troubled bad boy Timothy (Bobby Moreno); the quirky, artfully-disheveled Jessica (Megan Hill); and her own son, Jason (Steven Boyer)—a repressed, angry young man with an unusual attachment to his puppet, Tyrone. Playing for Margery’s affection, Pastor Greg (Scott Sowers) requests a puppet show for the next service, not aware that the seemingly pure Margery has something going on with a student who’s hot for teacher.
As if things weren’t warming up enough, young Jason finds an uninhibited voice through Tyrone, and confesses to his classmate Jessica his attraction to her. The voice, however, seems to be acting independently of him with inappropriate frankness, and he destroys Tyrone, terrified of what words might come from his mouth in front of the congregation. Things are not that simple, though, and Tyrone is a puppet that just will not die. All hell breaks loose, literally: Props are sent crashing to the floor, articles of clothing are torn and thrown across the stage, and the sock puppet sex in this production makes Avenue Q look like the teacup ride at Disneyland. Deftly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with fight choreography by Robert Westley, this fantastic cast of five—six, if you count Tyrone—had me alternatively gasping for laughs, covering my eyes and jumping in my seat.
Scenic designer Rebecca Lord-Surratt and properties manager Deb Gaouette have created a Bible schoolroom in brilliant detail, right down to an identifying adhesive letter on the classroom door. A side area of the stage that could have easily been ignored pulls triple duty as a playground with swings, Jason’s bedroom with a retractable bed, and Pastor Greg’s office. Lighting designer Matthew Richards uses filters to create sunlight filtering through treetops and moonlight seeping through Venetian blinds. It’s the little things that really stand out, though: Tiny footlights are used to illuminate the puppet theatre, and two ambient light fixtures hanging from the ceiling are handled as props.
Costume designer Sydney Maresca opts for modern, age-appropriate dress and throws in touches like a small cross necklace for Margery and a pair of loud glasses for Jessica to help define the characters. Sound designer Chris Barlow keeps the action moving with country music-infused transitions and spices things up with the occasional roar of semis rolling down the highway. Puppet designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen has done a great job here between creating various versions of Tyrone and the sexed-up puppet that the young Jessica wields like a weapon.
In this unlikely tale of good vs. evil, purity vs. sin, morality vs. depravity, and (yes) man vs. puppet, Robert Askins has won a fan in me. The cast and entire production team well-earned the standing ovation they received the night I saw Hand to God, and should you have the opportunity to see it, I encourage you to do so. It is, very simply, a devilishly good time.