Hand to God

YT17-Feature-Hand-to-GodMeet Tyrone: a puppet on an evil mission in the small town of Cypress, Texas.

City Theater’s production of Hand to God is Pittsburgh’s premiere of Robert Askin’s Tony-nominated play. For imagination alone, Askins deserved that nomination. For outrageousness and irreverence, his play takes the prize; Hand to God features the dirtiest mouthed church puppet you’ll meet. And human characters who are dealing with the dangerous emotional and psychological demons life deals us.

Anyone who grew up in a church environment should relate to Tony Ferrieri’s basement Sunday school set when the lights go up on City Theatre’s Hand to God. Be warned: what probably didn’t happen in that experience (we pray it didnt’!) happens in this play. And you have permission to laugh and you will. Do note there’s extreme profanity, intergenerational intercourse, puppet fornication, and the spontaneously blurting out of hysterically inappropriate things the characters are thinking. No, I’m not describing social media. This is adult stuff, so no kids, please, as noted by the clear “R” rating by the company.

Meet Jason and his mom, Margery, mourning the loss of his father and husband. Mom is producing puppet theater with her son and two other teens in the church basement when they meet to create puppets and scripts. Soon, quiet Jason (Nick LaMedica) tries out some material via Askins’ homage to old school comedy. When Jason and Tyone share an Abbott and Costello classic, his fellow puppeteer Jessica (Maggie Carr) is impressed. She asks Jason if he wrote the bit, he says “yes”. The “real’ voice of Tyrone calls Jason “liar” as the puppet starts a life of his own.

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Maggie Carr and Nick LaMedica

Tyrone take the wheel and drives the action from there, straight (or is that crooked?) into unchartered territory. His bad boy behavior seems contagious: at first “by the Book” Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) begins acting out and gets entangled with the totally horny Timmy (Michael Greer).

The play conjures some nightmares of childhood, like losing a parent and the anxiety of peer acceptance. Puberty is underway with the three kids, but the sexual curiosity and energy of the all the characters gets unleashed. You might avoid these folks during “fellowship hour”, but  the havoc they wreak downstairs is pretty darn entertaining.

Tyrone is a character in his own right. LaMedica, who brings puppeteer credits that include the acclaimed War Horse, is incredible in managing both voices and personalities. voices and two personalities. We are faced with our acceptance of Tyrone as a separate being and our concern about Jason’s state of mind. LaMedica’s  creation of puppet and master  justifies that concern.

Meanwhile, Smith’s Margery is a hot mess of grief and confusion. Smith is superb, travelling from from “church mom” persona to a woman of uncontrollable urges. Her best movements include some wonderful frustrated flailing that likely expresses how we’ve all felt at some time. We can share and relish her wild and rare outburst!

Pastor Greg (Timothy McGeever), concerned about Margery during the six months since her husband’s death, subtly suggests he and Margery “could be good for each other. He reveals a bit too many of his personal insecurities–he really likes Margery–but is a likeable good guy, even anticipating an exorcism.

Carr’s Jessica is integral as she’s the one who most genuinely connects with Jason. She takes a proactive role in distracting Tyrone with her own superb puppet female character. The resulting puppet couple brings down the house. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it!

Timmy is the quintessential obnoxious teen male as Greer indifferently slouches, makes  behind the back gestures, and spews the rudest language of adolescence. Greer’s leering and dismissive attitude convey teen angst and libido.

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Timothy McGeever, Lisa Velten Smith, Nick LaMedica

The whole cast is just terrific under Tracy Brigden’s keen direction, relentlessly playing of each character’s good and evil sides. They captivate through the most intimate moments to broadest physical comedy, including well-executed fight movement by Diego Villada.

The artistic team misses no opportunity on Ferrieri’s versatile five-location set that includes Margery’s car. Costumes by Tracy Christensen, lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski, and sound by Elizabeth Atkinson deserve applause for seamlessly contributing to the world of the play.

Stephanie Shaw’s wonderful puppet design includes two versions of Tyrone and Jessica’s irresistible girl puppet. Kudos to this extension of this relevant theatre art around which some of us had our first “theatre” experiences and happily revisit with shows like Avenue Q, Warhorse, and Lion King, among other successes.

The play is about basic human nature and when we behave and when we don’t. And the role “Lucifer” plays in the human psyche. An essential program note by Clare Drobot, director of City’s New Play Development, is appropriately titled “Family, Faith and Sympathy for the Devil”. Here, playwright Askins reassures us his play isn’t about religion. Hand to God is drawn primarily from  his own grief after his father’s passing and the dichotomy of being bad on Saturday night and participating in church on Sunday morning.

Anyone who’s juggled loss and a the role of humor in the darkest of times should get Askins’ drift; sometimes laughter is a healthy release in such times and outrageousness is often the easiest path for comedy. On the other hand, faith can’t be completely extracted from the story, especially when when sincere Pastor Greg is offering pastoral comfort or the setting so aptly recreates that safe zone of the children’s room at church. Those who left this world far behind or never experienced it might consider the realistic church setting as simply a place for the action, while others may consider this territory too sacred to accept the characters (and puppets) wayward behavior. The Devil’s afoot (ahoof?), so you’ve been warned!

It’s fun when Tyrone talk directly to us at the top and close of the show, but the play’s action speaks well for itself with the slightly preachy puppet monologues that reminded this writer of Bill Maher’s one-sided audience chats. Sure, listen, but it probably won’t change you.

Hang on as you’ll likely have more questions from this one-hour and 45-minute tragic-comic roller coaster (with one intermission to catch your breath). Was Tyrone really a demon? Was Jason possessed or victim of a psychology disorder? So, which one trashed the Sunday school room? Can puppets really have sex? And…does this play simply mirror to our own demons? Unless you have a puppet, you may never know.

City Theatre’s warning says: “Hand to God is rated R for rude, raunchy, and riotously funny content. You’ve been warned.”

Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets.

Hand to God is on City Theatre’s Mainstage through Sunday, October 16 with varied curtain times and days. Tickets are $15 for patrons under 30, or $37.50-$69 with group discounts for 10 or more. Call 412.431.CITY or explore options here

Photos: Justin Merriman