Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Hand to God
Jason (Linnard) is an unhappy, forlorn teenager, timid and a little lost after his father's recent death and his mother's apparent preoccupation with her own grief. He joins her newly formed church puppet troupe, the Christketeers, reluctantly. The group meets in the church basement classroom, adorned with cheery messages about Jesus and Christian love. Jason is not convinced this will cure his depression, and even tries to abandon his puppet: "I think it's doing bad things to me." But mom Margery (Melissa Claire) refuses to hear it, insisting that Jason continue with the troupe so she can have at least one good thing going on in her equally depressed life.
They're joined by Timothy (Neil Thollander), sullen and bordering on delinquent in his bad-boy remarks and behaviorhe's left at the troupe while his mother attends rehab meetingsand Jessica (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), whose interest in puppets is marginal, but the troupe helps alleviate her teenage doldrums. Pastor Greg (Carl Kraines) is delighted the troupe has started, but when his clumsy flirtations fail to woo Margery, he insists that the troupe perform in church on Sunday, just a few days away. Unwittingly, he thus cranks up the anxiety for all the characters, including Jason and his unorthodox puppet.
Tyrone's appearance seems innocent at firsta two-rod sock puppet in a crayon-colored body with a shock of neon hair and a wide, gaping mouthbut then he speaks, and screws innocence to the wall. Jason has a sweet crush on Jessica and tries to win her attention with a rendition of the famous "Who's on First" routine, using Tyrone as his vaudeville partner. This doesn't move fast enough for Tyrone, who then begins adding his own randy comments about Jessica's hotness, and won't stop even when Jason tells him to shut up. We begin witnessing the violent (and hysterical) division between Jason and Tyrone, and the struggle to see who will win control.
Bad goes to worse, as all the characters fall prey to baser impulses, and Tyrone increasingly rules their lives and the classroom itself. There's a gleefully mad scenic transition when Tyrone takes over the basementBarbie will never look the same.
The play veers into darker territory as Jason has to confront Tyrone to deal with his grief, his mother, and the recovery of his own identity, and serious themes develop, especially for Jason and Margery. Initially somewhat jarring after the raucous, zany comedy, these do reveal Askins' more thoughtful musings behind the ribaldry, stirring reflection on the impact of grief, on teenage angst, and the very nature of being human. Tyrone's monologues at start and end of show may feel simplistic and irreligious, but they address humanity's poor attempts to justify shifting definitions of "right" and "wrong." That Tyrone's demonic possession of Jason is so darned funny brings this home in an ironic way. "Miss me?" Tyrone asks, and, truth be told, we do.
Jason is not supposed to be a polished ventriloquist, so neither is Linnardwe see his lips move, we can even tell that Tyrone's voice comes from himbut his expert handling of the puppet, the expressions he gets from that sock mouth, the way he converses with Tyrone, is all stunning, making it virtually impossible to think of man and puppet as one person. Brilliantly done, Linnard's performance deserves some special award for a rare demonstration of weird puppetry.
Thankfully, there isn't a weak link in the whole cast. Claire is full of surprises as Margery, and manages to turn a totally inappropriate act of coitus into an uproarious scene. Parrott-Thomas keeps Jessica just this side of "normal" but also has her own surprises, including a puppet scene that makes Avenue Q look tame. Thollander gives us believable and even vulnerable bad-boy Timmy, and Kraines is spot-on as the hapless and ineffectual pastor.
Kudos to director Chris Ginesi for inspired staging, indelible scenic moments, and some images I will never be able to unsee. My only complaint is that there's too much shouting that goes on for too long, when the intensity of the action seems to get the better of the ensemble. The set design by Argo Thompson cleverly supplies several different locations and goes above and beyond for Tyrone's basement siege. The sprightly choreographed scene changes keep the pace moving. April George's lighting and Joe Winkler's sound design nicely enhance the spectacle, and costumes by Sandra Ish agreeably define character. Special applause for Images in Motion, credited with the creation of the puppets for the show.
It's a wild, wacky roller-coaster ride, filled with riotous laugh-out-loud action and the absurdly clever ravings of a deranged puppet. You don't want to miss this one.
Hand to God, through November 11, 2018, by Left Edge Theatre, at Studio Theater, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa CA. Tickets $25.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at www.leftedgetheatre.com or by phone at 707-546-3600.