Tuesday, November 08, 2011

THEATER: Hand to God

Photo/Gerry Goodstein
Life used to be easy, posits the puppet Tyrone: "When you had to shit, you just let it drop." But as humankind evolved, started working together in groups, things like "good" and "evil" came in to play, and each generation has faced more and harder restrictions than the last. With that subversive grain floating around our brains, the lights come up on Robert Askins's Hand to God to reveal Tyrone's operator, Jason (Steven Boyer), a mild-mannered fifteen-year-old who, like his mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), is having trouble coping with the world after the loss of his unhappy father (who ate himself to death). Their emotions are repressed, unlike those of the local bad boy, Timothy (Bobby Moreno), who, having been forced into Margery's Christian puppet-theater workshop, wastes no time insulting his classmate, Jessica (Megan Hill), an overachieving student. Just as puppets were used to surreptitiously sermonize to children, so too is the cast soon treated like puppets -- with over-the-top aplomb, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel -- in order to prove Tyrone's opening assertion about the troubles (and benefits) of living in a world of rules.

Askins's script is filled with big moments, and only just grounded by the presence of Pastor Greg (Scott Sowers), who, despite pathetically longing for Margery, remains levelheaded in the chaos that ensues once the class begins to suspect that Jason's hand -- Tyrone -- is possessed by the devil. But while the large moments are excellently held down by Boyer, a talented physical comic actor who gets opportunities to show off both Jim Carrey-esque battles with himself and Evil Dead 2-like levels of blood-soaked camp, the little moments get lost in the chaos. For instance, it's clear how shitty Timothy's life is, the way that he struggles to express himself to Margery through violence, winding up in a semi-masochistic relationship with her once she decides that she's done being "nice," and Moreno does a fine job as the angsty, hormonal teen, but it feels somewhat empty, as if there's nothing more to his character than this one moment of realized passion: where's the fallout? Likewise, while it's clear that Jessica has an unusual crush on Jason, her attempt to "save" Jason from Tyrone by using her own (sexually active) puppet, Jolene, is so hilarious that the sincerity beneath it is often lost.

Goodness shines through -- Hand to God is definitely worth seeing, especially if you liked Avenue Q -- but the play gets as confused as it suggests humans are, lost along the way to so-called "righteousness." But in fairness to the moral, "bad" and "good" are arbitrarily assigned terms. All you really need to know is that Hand to God is a shockingly fun way to spend two hours.

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