Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Hand to God
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell

Also see Rebecca's reviews of I and You, The Broken Heart, Anna


Aubie Merrylees
Photo by Mark Garvin
The Philadelphia Theatre Company production of Hand to God, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, is wickedly clever, totally irreverent, and so damn funny it will knock your socks off. Although it is not the first show to feature filthy-minded and foul-mouthed puppets, Robert Atkins' tremendously popular play takes things to a whole other level. Much of the acerbic humor aims directly at religion in general and the modern church in particular. The jokes are raunchy, the fights are gory, and the puppet action awesomely graphic. Unlike the occasionally naughty characters in Avenue Q these puppets are seriously evil.

The plot revolves around middle-age mom Margery (Grace Gonglewski) and her school-age son Jason (Aubie Merrylees). Well meaning Margery is trying to channel her sadness and frustration into a puppet performance class at church, but six months of bickering kids, inspirational posters, and cotton stuffing have left her more frazzled than ever. Mild mannered Jason is doing his best to be there for his mother, but when his puppet Tyrone starts lashing out in unexpected ways all hell breaks loose.

Gonglewski channels the frustrations of every woman who has ever discovered that doing what you're supposed to do is not always the best way to get what you want. Whether she is barely holding it together or completely letting herself go, Gonglewski is hysterical. Merrylees gives excellent performances as both gawky teen Jason and diabolical puppet Tyrone, a feat that is especially impressive when Jason and Tyrone come to verbal and physical blows.

Alex Keiper plays Jason's quirky and clever classmate Jessica with just the right amount of attitude. The puppet work that Keiper and Merrylees do together is unforgettable. Rebellious Timothy (Matteo J. Scammell) is the kid at school who always wears black and smokes in the parking lot, but even when he is acting like a bit of a jerk, Scammell is totally likable and funny as hell. William Zielinski rounds out the stellar cast as dependable and pitiable Pastor Greg, trying his best to hold fast to his faith when things start spinning out of control.

Some credit for the success of this production must also go to puppet designer and movement director Robert Smythe. Once the play gets going, Tyrone seems like just another one of the actors on stage—a rare bit of magic indeed. The church basement classroom where the puppet performance group meets is rendered with authenticity and wit by Brian Sidney Bembridge. Thanks to Bembridge and lighting designer Thom Weaver, the sets get even better as the play goes on.

Hand to God is innovative and ingenious, but most importantly it is very very funny theater. If you are not offended by blasphemy, bad language, boobs, or a little bit of blood, this production is a must.

Hand to God runs through April 30th, 2017, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre Broad and Lombard Streets in Center City Philadelphia. For tickets call (215) 985-0420 or go online at PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.

Cast:
Grace Gonglewski: Margery
Alex Keiper: Jessica
Aubie Merrylees: Tyrone
Matteo Scammell: Timothy
William Zielinski: Pastor Greg

Creative:
Director: Matt Pfeiffer
Puppet Designer and Movement Director: Robert Smythe
Set Designer: Brian Sidney Bembridge
Costume Designer: Allison Roberts
Lighting Designer: Thom Weaver
Sound Designer/Original Music: Daniel Perelstein
Fight Director: J. Alex Cordaro


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