Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of Cave Boys, Hamilton, The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats, and Kelli O'Hara with Seth Rudetsky
Askins' play is set in the basement of a Cypress, Texas, church where Jason's mom Margery instructs teenagers Jessica, Timothy, and Jason in using puppetry to spread the word of the Lord, though no one seems to take it that seriously, including Margery who is a mess and a nervous wreck and still mourning the loss of her husband. The church's Pastor Greg believes he is the person to help Margery heal and move on with her life, while the introverted and shy Jessica has feelings for Jason, and the cocky Timothy is burning for Margery. Attached to Jason's right hand is Tyrone, the blasphemous and perverse sock puppet he created who lets forth a non-stop barrage of foul-mouthed and sexual statements, and has no problem using violence to his advantage. When weird things start to happen in the church, the characters start asking themselves some questions. Is Tyrone simply saying out loud and doing the things that the repressed Jason feels and wishes he could say and do? Or is Tyrone, or possibly Jason, actually possessed by the devil?
While Askins' black comedy poses some intriguing questions about religion the play doesn't delve too deep into them. Instead, he lets the comic moments fly while also presenting some interesting questions concerning the lost, broken, wounded and pained characters in his playboth the teens and the adults.
Director Ron May scores once again in finding a cast who are able to exceptionally portray both the humor and heartfelt sides of this group of troubled souls without ever turning this black comedy into farce. Even though it is a comedy, the truth that May and his cast bring to this play and their parts is exquisite.
With a clear distinction between both characters, Eric Zaklukiewicz is amazing as both Jason and Tyrone. While the difference in voice, tone and delivery that he creates between the shy, introverted and withdrawn Jason and the outrageous Tyrone is excellent, it is the addition of his polished puppeteering skills that creates two incredibly distinct individuals. His performance is so superb that after a while I started thinking there were two people on stage whenever Jason and Tyrone were conversing. Elyse Wolf Davidson is just as excellent as Margery, the woman who lost her husband and can't face losing her son as well. She throws herself into the part of this jittery and nervous, lost soul of a woman who is trying to heal her wounds. Davidson's portrayal of the confusion Margery feels about finding some potential pleasures with the boyish, reckless Timothy while the quiet Pastor Greg is courting her and also dealing with the possible satanic possession of her son is exceptional in a performance that is both fearless and flawless.
With a sweet and sensible disposition, Louis Farber is simply lovely as the caring and kind Pastor Greg, and Vaughn Sherman is sublime as Timothy, who starts out cocky but ends up demoralized based on a series of hilarious setbacks. As Jessica, Michelle Chin is equally as good as the timid teen who comes alive once her hand puppet comes onto the scene. The conversation that Chin and Zaklukiewicz have about the troubles of being a teenager while their puppets are engaged in other activities, and their facial expressions indicate their embarrassment and humorously horrific feelings about what they are witnessing, is a hilarious highlight in a show with many comical high points.
Aaron Sheckler's scenic design perfectly establishes the rooms in the cheery church while the costumes from Maci Cae Hosler work well to portray the specific characters. Cari Smith's puppet designs are excellent, including a hysterical added moment for Jolene, Jessica's puppet. The remaining creative elements are all professional and confident in their designs, including the polished lighting from Dallas Nichols, the sound from Peter Bish, which features several perfect scene change music selections, and Jessica Florez's abundance of appropriate properties. Diane Senffner's dialect coaching establishes perfect Texas accents from the cast while Andrea Robertson's fight choreography delivers some impressively frightening and realistic moments. The production also clearly benefits from Toby Yatso's skilled puppet training.
Hand to God is a comedy that turns the idea of religion on its head while also painting unique and identifiable characters: the deeply troubled mother and son who are struggling from the effects of a traumatic situation; the good pastor who is trying to do the right things; and two teens trying to grapple with adolescent issues and their raging hormones. It may be a shocking and outrageous play that is also vulgar, profane and perverse, but May's succinct direction and a confident cast that are incredibly fun to watch help make this both an outrageous comedy and an interesting expose into the lives of a group of fractured souls.
Stray Cat Theatre and Phoenix Theatre's co-production of Hand to God runs through February 25th, 2018, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director: Ron May
*Members of Actors' Equity Association