Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Hand to God begins with a prologue in which a Muppet-like sock puppet appears between the curtains of a puppet theater, to share his wisdom on the origins of what passes for civilization. It is not a very pretty picture, laced with profane language, ending with the suggestion that bad behavior can always be explained by blaming it on the devil. Thus the stage is set.
The play is set in present day Texas, "somewhere where the city and the country meet," opening in a perfectly rendered Lutheran church basement. Its central characters are Jason and Tyrone, who may or may not be one person. Jason is a shy, well-mannered teenager, troubled by the death of his father six months earlier. Tyrone is the puppet who gave us the irreverent prologue, now worn on Jason's hand, and who takes on a personality of his own, saying things that shock and humiliate Jason, but which Jason is unable to prevent. Along with Jason, two other teenagers take part in the church's youth puppet theater: Jessica, who is sweet, earnest and a bit of a nerd, and Timothy, a foul-mouthed punk with no interest in puppets, who is only there to pass time while his mother attends an AA meeting.
The puppet theater is led by Jason's mother Margery, who finds in it a form of therapy to cope with her own grief on the loss of her husband. She is mightily challenged by Timmy's disruptive presence and tries to set him straight, with disastrous results. Also on hand is Pastor Greg, who hopes that Margery, now a single woman, can remedy his life-long loneliness, much to her dismay. Meanwhile, Jason is nursing a crush on Jessica, but Tyroneafter he and Jason charm Jessica with a sample of their performance reparteeturns the crush into crass verbal abuse. Mortified, Jason tries to rid himself of Tyrone, but neither his mother, who needs Jason in the puppet theater because it comforts her, nor Tyrone himself will allow that to happen.
Dark deeds follow, including grossly inappropriate sex and vicious attacks resulting in excruciating pain. As these incidents occur they are both shocking and insidiously funny. It is gallows humor, to be sure, and captures the absurdity of every turn in the twisted plot. The audience around me let out frequent blasts of loud belly-laughter, enjoying the coarse antics and foul language, especially when coming from unlikely sources or aimed at unsuspecting victims. It brings to mind the humor in animated TV series like "The Simpsons" and "South Park." There is a lot of wit in those programs, as there is in Hand to God, and the physical humor works because it defies plausibility, so ridiculous that it pushes the envelope of our own conventions. However, I also observed that some audience members were not laughing so much, seeming more troubled than entertained by the calamities piling up on stage. I found myself somewhere in the middle, laughing one moment, troubled the next. Both are reasonable responses to Hand to God.
Throughout, we are not sure where Jason's control of Tyrone's wickedness begins or ends, but it is clear that neither Jason nor Tyrone are models of mental health. Jason is a sad, repressed young man who mistakes the repression of his needs and feelings for goodness. Tyrone know no boundaries, giving voice to every lurid notion that pops into his fevered mind. We know that somehow there must be a happy medium between these two, and watch the mayhem, hanging on to the hope that, surely, there will be a reconciliation between these two enemies joined at the arm.
Riley O'Toole plays the challenging dual role of Jason and Tyrone, and it is a brilliant performance. The actor is persuasive as an introverted boy in his middle teens, dealing with the pain of losing a parent on top of the angst that goes hand in hand with his age bracket, and then whips into Tyrone's vulgar, unforgiving rants, to the degree that one could believe another actor is giving voice to the puppet. As Margery, Tracey Maloney gives a full-tilt performance, ranging from prim propriety, to sexual abandon, to self-righteous accuser, to emotionally bereft survivor. Maloney seamlessly leaps from one manic state to another with a perverse logic, in spite of Margery's obvious imbalance.
Kris Nelson is a hoot as Pastor Greg, spouting out such euphemisms as "son of a biscuit." As his veneer of gentleness, patience, and lofty thoughts chips away bit by bit, Nelson's Pastor Greg emits a glow that seems to reflect a state of embarrassment at how "good" he is, in a world where "good" is often on the losing side. C. Michael Menge makes a strong impression as Jessica, the one character who remains centered throughout the play's upheavals, giving Jessica a steady intelligence that enables her to find solutions where everyone else finds discord. Eric Sharpe, as Timothy, does not completely convince as a teenager, but he conveys the attitude and fervor of a troubled youth who has decided to make his mark by being bad, abetted by grunge-styled apparel and two-tone hair.
Cristina Baldwin excels at performance in every form of theater I can think ofcomedy, drama, musical theater, devised theater, opera, and anything else you can toss her way. She has added director to her credentials, and was recently named Resident Director with the Jungle Theater. Her strong sense of what works for actors is a great asset in bringing out rich performances from this cast that manage to give the characters a sheen of authenticity in spite of the absurdity of the circumstances around them.
Chelsea M. Warren, a recent arrival to the Twin Cities as Assistant Professor of Scenic Design at the University of Minnesota, has designed a clever set in which Pastor Greg's office folds out from the wings, trading space with the church basement setting. Both rooms are decorated with corny posters, homilies, and other ephemera that totally capture the essence of the people who occupy them. Warren also designed the puppets, foremost among them Tyrone, giving him a furry, soft looking exterior that conceals his sinister interior. Sarah Bahr's costumes are spot on for each character, including Pastor Greg's collection of nebbishy sweater vests. All other tech credits work well to support the production, with a cool flash of Tyrone's satanic powers coming at just the right moment. To complete the package, the actors have all done a good job of acquiring Texas drawls.
Hand to God is a bona fide original, a well-written play that uses an outrageous concept and absurd plot to point to some challenging truths about the tough balancing act between good and evil we negotiate on our journey through life. Tyrone's opening monologue is a facile view of the social evolution of our species and our notions of right and wrong, but he does make a few points. Whether you go for the hearty but devilish laughs, the underlying philosophical notions, or one from column A and one from column B, Jungle Theater delivers a first class production of this scintillating play.
Hand to God, through August 26, 2018, at Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $37.00 - $47.00. Seniors (60+) and students, through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Playwright: Robert Askins; Director: Cristina Baldwin; Set and Puppet Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Dialect Coach: Kelly Wolter; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Leazah Behren; Production Manager: Matthew Early; Assistant Director: Christine Weber
Cast: Tracey Maloney (Margery), C. Michael Menge (Jessica), Kris Nelson (Pastor Greg), Riley O'Toole (Jason/Tyrone), Eric Sharp (Timothy).