When a critic goes to see a show, he or she is usually given a packet of information about the show, the playwright and other pertinent information. When the B Street Box Office handed me a packet for “Hand to God” that included not only a “history of puppetry” but also a “brief history of demonic possession,” I knew we were in for something … unusual.
Unusual is putting it mildly.
This hilariously funny play from the demented mind of playwright Robert Askins is everything a normal person should hate (and some in the audience did leave at intermission). It is raunchy and irreverent, and yet, we in the audience laughed uproariously and gave the cast a standing ovation.
The story concerns a puppet, Tyrone (who resembles a Muppet from the wrong side of the tracks), who is possessed by the devil and is manipulating the life of teenager Jason (Ryan Borses), a young man depressed about his father’s recent death.
Borses gives an outstanding performance as both Jason and Tyrone, who seems permanently attached to Jason’s arm. Borses is able to create distinct personalities for the two characters and accurately displays a range of emotions, including the depth of Jason’s depression and Tyrone’s anger, often simultaneously, in one fast-paced dialog between the two. It has to be seen to truly be appreciated.
The action takes place in a church basement where Jason’s mother Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) is leading a puppet workshop, as part of Pastor Greg’s (Dave Pierini) outreach to younger people.
Also part of the group are Timmy (Andrew Mazer), the perennial bad boy who is more interested in making moves on Margery than on making puppets. Jessica (Stephanie Altholz) is the polar opposite to Timmy, a goody-two-shoes who tries to keep the peace, despite her own puppet’s desires.
Margery isn’t really interested in the workshop, since she has just lost her husband, and is trying to work through her own grief and depression, which does not include Jason, who turns to Tyrone for comfort.
Tyrone becomes more and more demonic as the play progresses, growing teeth and pointy ears along the way. He and Jessica’s creation, a busty puppet named Jolene, find a mutual attraction and the resulting puppet-on-puppet action, while hilarious, would earn the play an X rating if the beings involved actually had genitalia.
Everyone in this workshop eventually succumbs to their baser instincts and under Tyrone’s delighted cheering, they all give in to temptation to express the hate, lust, violence and fear that exists in all of them. The professional skills of the puppeteers, who keep up a running in-depth conversation while their arms are engaged in unspeakable action with each other, is remarkable.
This wildly irreverent but very funny play also explores the more serious topics such as the nature of grief and the repression of human nature, and ultimately finds redemption and a way to defuse the out-of-control Tyrone.
All of the actors are wonderful, with Mazer as the greaser who appears just dumb and horny, but actually longs for the love that Jason seeks as well. Nunziato’s grief at the loss of her husband is always just below the surface as she is drawn to her baser instincts and ultimately her realization of her feelings for her son.
Altholz is not as prissy “goody two-shoes” as she seems and has her own moments of audaciousness.
Rounding out the cast, Perini is a well-meaning pastor who has the hots for Margery, but manages to keep himself in check.
Samantha Reno’s set is a fun puppet workshop until Act 2, when Tyrone takes over and the change is very striking.
This is a play you really want to dislike and feel somehow you should not be watching, but you can’t help being drawn into the story and laughing uncontrollably throughout.