A demonic puppet, a church basement, repressed human desires unleashed… I went to see Hand To God and it had me either laughing or completely disturbed for a couple of hours last night. At first I wasn’t sure what it could be about since it’s a new American play and the title could mean it’s either uber-religious, or some sort of parody, or who knows? I was intrigued by the little red-haired puppet peeking out of New York street corners and billboards and so after reading up on it, and learning that some friends wanted to see it too, I decided to go (they have rush tickets!).
The play involves a teenage boy, Jason (Steven Boyer), whose mother, Margery (Geneva Carr) hosts a Christian puppet class in the church basement. Jason becomes quite literally attached to his puppet, Tyrone, and his attachment turns into possession! Real emotional turmoil underlying Jason’s sheepish, adolescent angst begins to surface through Tyrone. He confronts his desires to push back at a bully, Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), to spend ‘alone time’ with his crush Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and to tell his mother how he really feels about his father’s death – miserable and prone to blaming her for it all. What struck me in this production the most was that I was never ahead of the performance. Act I ended with the audience in laughter, including me, because I was led through the journey of discovering with everyone else what was going on (and I’m purposely being vague because I can’t say what happens!).
I was happy that in a play about taboo subjects I always felt that the players were in control of their actions even though I believed everything that they did was really happening. At one point in Act II a house plant prop was on the floor as Timothy burst into an office to find Margery. Michael, the actor, acknowledged the fact that it was there, moved the plant onto the shelf and continued with his task of ‘seducing an older woman’! By the time it got round to the end of Act II when the truth and emotional life of all of the characters had surfaced and was being resolved… any violence or painful discoveries felt real (but I wasn’t worried about the performers).
I think the funniest part about this play for me was to discover when being ‘nice’ or being ‘polite’ doesn’t help a character resolve her issues. It’s interesting to watch Margery maneuver being put in a position by her pastor of refusing a romantic relationship with him despite his kindness and position in her life. In watching the opposites of a polite woman squirm and the bolder Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) be oblivious to her real feelings I was set up for a power-reversal. In the end when the dynamic is reversed and Margery boldly states that she is not interested in romance and he is forced to tuck away his desires it’s interesting to watch the power struggle change.
It was just as interesting to watch Jason use his puppet to bring darker emotional driving forces inside him to the surface. It became clear throughout the course of the play that pushing his thoughts deeper inside led to some very uncomfortable situations as they blew up and made the people around him uncomfortable. He found himself saying really inappropriate things to the girl he actually liked, hurting his mother’s feelings instead of telling her how he really feels, and inflicting some criminal violence on the bully in his life that might have been avoided if he found a way to use his voice more often. Tyrone became an outlet for Jason to acknowledge what he was feeling and in the end it required strength and courage to put the puppet away… and be okay with both the good and bad parts of his life.
The serious issues were unexpectedly lying just underneath all the facetiousness in this play!