Dobama’s ‘Hand to God’ is demonically funny
By Bob Abelman
Hand puppets can get away with saying just about anything.
As innocent extensions of their handlers, Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Sherri Lewis’ Lamb Chop and Jim Henson’s Muppets charmed and educated golden age TV audiences with their cheery dispositions, disarming naiveté and clandestine moral guidance.
More recent wood and fabric fabrications such as Jeff Dunham’s abusive Walter, Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and the ensemble in Broadway’s bawdy “Avenue Q” give voice to their creators’ progressive social commentary and particular political leanings.
And then there’s Tyrone, the profane and demonically possessed sock puppet who currently rants against religion on the Dobama Theater stage in Robert Askins’ outrageous comedy “Hand to God.”
The play begins in a church basement in Cypress, Texas, where young members of Pastor Greg’s (David Bugher) Christian ministry (played by adults) engage in puppet therapy to help the shy Jason (Luke Wehner) learn to express himself, help the sexually aggressive Timothy (Austin Gonser) find a more constructive creative outlet, and help Jessica (Molly Israel) – the secret object of Jason’s affections – find God.
The therapy is run by Jason’s mom, Margery (Tricia Bestic), who could use a bit of help herself as she struggles with guilt over her husband’s death-by-over-eating and the resultant emotional toll it has taken on Jason.
Soon Jason’s puppet Tyrone broadcasts the boy’s private thoughts, acts out his primitive impulses and base instincts, and eventually takes over the soul of the teen attached to the arm that is attached to him.
At first glance, this play seems to be little more than the stuff Tyrone is made of – a wad of impudence swaddled in slightly askew cuteness, bedazzled with blinding vulgarity, and built to shock and amuse with its malevolence and boldfaced blasphemy.
But the play’s 2011 Obie Award (off-Broadway), 2015 Tony nominations (Broadway) and 2016 Olivier nominations (London) suggest that this is more than just a perverse puppet show aimed at agnostic adults. There’s some deep thought just beneath the titillation that has made “Hand to God” one of most produced new plays in the country.
Look close and you’ll see that the play strips away normalcy so to showcase for our consideration a range of human foibles and frailties.
The debilitating and disorienting power of shame is on display, albeit in the form of Margery’s seduction of young Timothy, which is performed with superb comedic timing and clever choreography by Bestic and Gonser.
The lure of lust is also examined by way of simulated coitus between Israel’s hand puppet and Wehner’s Tyrone, an absurd act that takes its cue from “Avenue Q” but with heightened explicitness.
In Wehner’s magnificently violent, one-man wrestling match between Jason and Tyrone, we witness the human psyche’s perpetual battle between the id and the superego.
And the play suggests that hypocrisy exists in the heart of the super-devout, handled with immense grace by Bugher.
OK, this sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing all that is naughty in “Hand to God” in order to justify it. But everything Askins has to offer lands with resonance as well as audacity. And, under Matthew Wright’s sleight-of-hand direction, even the dropping of f-bombs is raised to an art form. His actors offer a master class in balancing horror with humor, vulnerability with vulgarity, and playing impertinence with a straight face.
All this is complemented by delightful stagecraft. Richard Ingraham and Marcus Dan’s haunting sound and lighting designs, Yesenia Real-Rivera’s playful prop design, and Ben Needham’s rotating scenic design that seamlessly and repeatedly swaps out the church basement with other locations feeds the frenzy that is “Hand to God.”
Puppets can most certainly get away with saying just about anything. And “Hand to God” pushes this notion awfully close to the breaking point. CV
WHAT: “Hand to God”
WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.
WHEN: Through May 21
TICKETS & INFO: $29 – $32. Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 24, 2017.
Lead image: Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone. Photo / Steve Wagner