Askins’ script is an amusing mash-up of sex comedy and supernatural horror parody, drawing on puppetry’s subversive potential to externalize the repressed.
Hand to God by Robert Askins. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through February 4.
By Ian Thal
In America, the world of puppet theater largely exists in its own niche, rarely making much of an appearance in the theatrical mainstream. On the one hand, the latter is wedded to the quasi-naturalism of nineteenth century drama and twenty-first century television; on the other there’s the spectacle of musicals and the latest projection technologies. The few well-known crossovers are mainly notable because they are exceptions to the rule. Still, there’s a subculture of American puppetry that’s even off-the-beaten-track to puppetry enthusiasts: Christian ministry puppetry. And that provides the setting of Robert Askins’ effective comedy Hand to God.
At the beginning of the play, Tyrone, a cute sock puppet, peeks through the velvet curtain in the Wimberly auditorium and delivers a sly fable about the Devil’s origins that manages to combine the demythologizing fervor of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals with the hip irreverence of Lenny Bruce’s monologue “How the Law Got Started (Eat, Sleep and Crap).”
When the curtain opens, scenic designer Cristina Todesco’s cleverly recursive set is revealed. On the Wimberly’s proscenium stage stands another proscenium stage: one that has been converted into a classroom for religious instruction because the church auditorium has ceased to be used for the performing arts. On the wings of this stage you can glimpse the black clad stage crew milling about, preparing for the next scene. Within the proscenium within a proscenium, there is yet another another proscenium stage – a tiny puppet theater with its own curtain.
Recently widowed Margery (Marianna Bassham) is teaching an after-school puppetry workshop for teenagers at the church. Her teenage son, Jason (Eliott Purcell) has so taken to being a puppeteer that his alter ego, Tyrone, rarely leaves his right hand. He has a crush on his classmate Jessica (Josephine Elwood), who became fascinated with puppetry after seeing a production of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. In Cypress, Texas, (the playwright’s hometown) her only option to pursue her enthusiasm is in the basement of a Fundamentalist Lutheran church. Also in the class is Timothy (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a vulgar mouthed bad boy who wears heavy metal t-shirts to scandalize the adults and, due to a lack of interest in the subject matter and hots for the teacher, acts out constantly. Pastor Greg (Lewis D. Wheeler) maintains similarly amorous feelings towards the widow and has given her a deadline of putting on a puppet show the coming Sunday.
Things take a darkly comic turn once Jason and Tyrone impress Jessica with a rendition of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine on the church playground (a stage Todesco has placed above the proscenium inside the proscenium). Suddenly, Tyrone – seemingly of his own volition – loudly announces Jason’s more lustful urges. Jason thinks Tyrone is possessed by a demon, but Jessica just sees an awkward boy not taking responsibility for a crude come-on.
Jason, horrified by what was said, attempts to quit puppetry and destroy Tyrone. Before the first act has ended, Margery has impulsively decided to have a sexual tryst with Timothy (fight director Ted Hewlett skillfully walks a fine line between violence and slapstick in the scene’s hilarious, classroom-wrecking explosion of sadomasochism). This sets off Jason, so Tyrone roars back, bigger and scarier than ever — and all hell breaks loose.
Purcell plays Jason as a nice kid, horrified by the extremity of his libido, especially given that it has taken over one of his extremities. (The character is also more than a little terrified to see sexual desire in others – especially his mom.) Meanwhile, Sanchez’ Timothy is a hyperactive eruption of everything Jason fears. Bassham finds the humor in Margery’s pain as well as her regret over her bad decisions. Wheeler’s Pastor Greg is earnest in an off-putting manner — he is equal parts saccharine and smarmy. As often happens in scripts featuring teen ingenues, Elwood’s Jessica is sidelined for a good many scenes, but the actress gets some nice stage business when she works on her puppet, Jolene.
Director David R. Gammons has long been attracted to material that gives him an opportunity to toy with demolishing the fourth wall, and he deftly draws on the text’s visual and sonic motifs, aided and abetted by Todesco’s aforementioned scenic design.
Of course, the success of a production like this one relies heavily on the magic of the puppetry. Credit must go to puppetry director Roxanna Myhrum (also artistic director of Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theater, one of a handful of organizations that keep the art form alive in the Boston area) and designer Jonathan Little of Little’s Creatures. He has created a succession of increasingly demonic Tyrones, along with a generous serving of visual gags with other puppets. Myhrum’s distinctive stamp is all over this production, not just regarding Purcell’s virtuoso performance — the struggles between Jason and Tyrone often fling Purcell’s contorting body across the set — but also in a hilarious sock puppet sex scene between Tyrone and Jolene.
Askins’ script is a continually amusing mash-up of sex comedy and supernatural horror parody, drawing on puppetry’s subversive potential to externalize the repressed. But, despite suggestions to the contrary, this is far from “edgy” material. Is anyone in the audience really scandalized by Hand to God? Askins wants it both ways: Tyrone manifests supernatural powers, but the script mocks the idea of the Devil as a literal personification of evil. Chalk it up to playing fast and loose with magical realism. But how many Fundamentalists, who genuinely believe in the existence of the Devil, are going attend this show? Could a contemporary script stage a sexual tryst between a male teacher and female student for laughs and still receive five Tony Award nominations? In truth, the play conveniently ends before we might become uncomfortable about what we are laughing at. Were there a hypothetical third act, would Pastor Greg consider his legal obligation to report Margery to local law enforcement (the age of consent in Texas is eighteen – and the Devil most certainly didn’t make her do Timothy)? Or would he to try to cover up the incident? We will never know: transgression concocted for commercial success stops well short of moving into that kind of risky territory.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.