Few things seem more wholesome and family-friendly than a church-sponsored puppetry group. But throw in a mid-life crisis, raging lust and a touch of possibly satanic possession, and this good, clean fun turns demonically dirty.
“Hand to God” is a dark comedy by Robert Askins. It had two successful off-Broadway productions before finally transferring to Broadway in 2015. The show was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best New Play. GableStage’s production is the Southeast regional premier for the work and the last play of their 2015-16 season.
In the show, Margery (Margery Lowe) is a recently widowed mother to her teenage son Jason (Wesley Slade). Margery has found an outlet for her grief by running a puppetry club out of her Texas church. She may have to fend off romantic advances from Pastor Greg (Stephen G. Anthony) and the teenage bad boy Timothy (Kristian Bikic), but idle hands are the devil’s playthings. This saying becomes very literal when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, takes on a life of his own and begins to attack, physically and verbally, everything that gets in his way.
As both the hapless Jason and his domineering puppet Tyrone, Slade’s puppetry is nothing short of virtuosic. It is mesmerizing to watch him effortlessly play entire scenes with himself at a breakneck pace. Tyrone’s gestures are remarkably lifelike and specific for being controlled with two rods. The entire cast displayed impeccable timing and a propensity for physical comedy which kept the audience consistently chuckling all evening.
“Hand to God” loses its bite and energy when it reaches for a deeper, more serious message, particularly in the second act. Without laying any foundation in act one for this pivot to sentimental drama, it feels tacked-on and unnecessary. Unlike its close cousin, “Avenue Q,” to which it will inevitably draw comparison, “Hand to God” is most enjoyable when you focus on the uproarious gags and ignore the sappy, half-baked story of familial reconciliation as much as possible. The actors make the best of this tonally inconsistent material, but their best efforts cannot fully justify the schizophrenic shifts between farce and melodrama.
The gags, though, are hysterical. By far the best is a puppet sex scene between Jessica (Casey Sacco) and Jason and their alter egos. To say more would be to spoil the fun, but the interaction between four characters, two human and two puppet, had the audience roaring with laughter for the entire duration of the scene.
“Hand to God” is packed full of enough laughs to make it worth the price of admission. Although not all of the material is the strongest, GableStage’s cast makes it possible to forgive the disappointing plot and just enjoy the wisecracking and tomfoolery instead.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
If You Go:
“Hand to God”
Where: GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 30.
Cost: $42-$60 ($15 student tickets are available on Thursday and Sunday nights)
For more information, call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.
Feature image courtesy Pixabay user Dieter_G