Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Voice of Satan: Hand to God's a Wicked Piece of Puppet Theater

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2017 at 5:18 PM

Aside: I told Hand to God director Irene Crist I'd let everybody know I attended a preview performance of the show. You know, the performance before the opening night performance, once called a "critic's preview," but now called "friends and family night." I promised I'd put the information front and center too, so here it is. The paint was literally, and figuratively still wet, but so what? I grew up on the other side of the footlights, and I always liked that smell. It smelled like the details coming together.

Promise fulfilled. Now, the review...
  
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Hand to God. Holy shit. Maybe you should just clear your mind and let me give this to you like an elevator pitch. The time: Now, more or less. The place: A Sunday school room somewhere in suburban Texas. The plot: Margery is working through grief and an evidently difficult past by teaching teens how to reject Satan with puppets. She's a horny new widow doggedly pursued by a horny minister, engaged in a dangerous liaison with one of her horny young puppeteers, and emotionally ill-equipped to cope with her own horny, hurt, badly repressed, and clearly demon possessed teenager. Though sometimes compared to Avenue Q, because both shows contain  foulmouthed puppets doing shocking things, Hand to God is more like a mashup of The Exorcist and King of the Hill, all under the influence of Meet the Feebles,

There's something not quite right about the Circuit Playhouse's production, admirably directed by Irene Crist, with showy performances by Jordan Nichols and L.B. Wingfield, and a strong cast all around. It's a tonal problem. Something I like to call "outside the trailer park looking in" syndrome, with actors commenting on characters they need to inhabit. But it's not quite wrong either — except in the ways it's supposed to be.
Hand to God works like The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt. It's a living comic book journey into mystery, complete with an ominous narrator. In this case, a gospel-preaching sock puppet named Tyrone. It's a trip to the House of Secrets in a Black Mirror universe much like our own, where humor and heartbreak spring from some really dark, sometimes genuinely upsetting places. Crist's take is a little more icky sit-com with lots of canned contemporary kiddie music. It should  appeal to the more mature end of the Stranger Things demo, but could stand a bolder, more cringe-inducing treatment.

Nichols uses young Jason/Tyrone's split personality to really show off his acting chops and it's impressive stuff.  The infernally-charged monster on the end of his arm has its own independent life — One that, unlikely as it seems, becomes even more unique and vibrant in the scenes Nichols plays with himself. The play's best moment happens when Jason and Jessica (L.B. Wingfield, wonderfully) have the show's first real breakthrough conversation. It's a feat they accomplish while their puppets are having nasty sex and too distracted to interrupt.

Tracie Hansom's about the bravest actor in town. She's always good and often great, though she didn't seem completely comfortable as Margery. The same goes for Sam Weekley as a minister with roaming hands and entitled fingers. He settles in when the good Reverend slips out of good ol' boy mode and into something a little more authoritarian.  As Timmy, the Sunday School bully, Jacob Wingfield takes care of business like the bad motherfucker in a John Hughes film.

I got the sense Hand to God was coming together late. On the night before opening actors were still too busy wrestling with their parts to be part of an ensemble. But they were getting there.

Freaky stuff, and recommended. But not for the faint of heart.


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