Hand to God at Studio is truly outlandish; a joyfully “blasphemous” production just as The Studio Theatre marketing material shouts out in a bold headline. With immersion staging in its intimate Studio X 4th floor venue Hand to God by playwright Robert Askins. It is destined to be a sold-out, wild, summertime hit. It deserves all the accolades it receives.
Let’s be clear on this at the get-go; Hand to God may be naughty fun, but its deeper message is about survival and resilience by lonely, confused humans. For them and the audience who come to care about them rather than judge them, Hand to God can be heartbreaking. The show provides audience members with opportunity galore to brood over the plight of the human characters occupying the production with a devilish sock puppet named Tyrone. Tyrone is a natural-born course ham, grabbing the spotlight every moment he can.
So, how does Tyrone come to life? Well, he lives on the hand of one of the troubled human characters in the production with him. How best to describe Tyrone? He is a bully “alter-ego” puppet with a hormone-laden, hyper-masculine attitude. (Chelsea M. Warren is credited with the spiffy puppet design). Tyrone would gleefully demolish the set and tear apart the entire Avenue Q puppet cast after commanding those little cute softies to sing their famous production number, “The Internet is for Porn” before viciously doing each of them in.
With playwright Askins’ fetile, gimlet look at an insular world teetering on its long-held religious code of decorum and Joanie Schultz’s astute, delicious direction, Hand to God is more than a mere farce. It is a full-fledged deep dive into the lives of lonely people. Just everyday folk; several are adults living unhappy, painfully repressed lives with plenty of wicked desires and dreams. As one says outright, “I’ve been good too long.”
Others characters are teens confused about their sexual desires, just wanting to experience life thought having few clues or trusted adults to help guide them. Trying to fathom what has been happening one can only mutter; “I am confused.”
Hand to God is set in a Lutheran church basement somewhere in Texas. All Hell is about to break out. An adult volunteer class leader named Margery (the ever wonderful local actor Susan Rome who presents profound emotions whether speaking the most bizarre lines or is actively humping away with an underage male student). Margery is having little success leading her Christian puppetry Ministry class, trying to bring forth the Word of Jesus. Her husband has just died and she just so needy and adrift. She just wants some understanding and adult company, of her own choosing.
One of the teens in class is Jason (slight in stature, Liam Forde who gives off palpable puzzlement and uncertainty like any teen just wanting not to be considered a loser by his peers). Jason happens to be Margery’s son. He too is trying to deal with the unexpected death of his father. He has no one to guide him through his own tough times. And his mother Margery is of no help. She just wants her son “to be there for Mommy” since she is so afraid she “will lose him too.”
And out of their messed-up existence comes Tyrone, at first a figment of Jason’s vivid needy imagination. Soon, to take over letting his freak flag fly. Think a Twilight Zone episode.
In the puppet class with Jason are two other teens. One is Timothy (Ryan McBride, who knows how to fill physical spaces with his bulk and brashness all with a showy, loud manner of speaking). He too is far from OK. His mother is an alcoholic. She pays no attention to him, dumping him off at the church to get him out of her hair. There is also a dream-like charmer of a teen-age girl named Jessica. She has one of those giving hearts of spun gold though with her own set of hormones to explore. (Caitlin Collins with a studied bewilderment eyes daring about on a journey to become a willing “Savior” though with rolling eyes).
One last human character is the very lonesome, almost “jerk” Lutheran Church pastor Greg (Tim Getman as a muddled often decent middle-aged man, who is an obnoxiously creep with Margery as his own sexual needs overwhelm him). Then again Pastor Greg shows some true colors when trying to help Jason through his monstrous times.
And then we have to come back to Tyrone, the sock puppet. Created by Jason he becomes Jason’s way to communicate his overwhelming pain and insecurities to a world not paying attention to him. (As any of us who were one teen age boy will recall; well, he is us. Jason and Tyrone are One, just different sides trying to find out which will ultimately be in charge).
The Studio technical design team led by Set Designer Daniel Conway is simply top-notch. The set takes on the feel of a church basement (or any religious venue with its work to reach its flock or congregation). Tables covered with table cloths, with posters and signs about Jesus, and doing good deeds. Keith Parkam’s lighting design is fluorescent bright, then takes on a joyful diabolical day-glow life that had been hidden away from sight. I would be remiss without a shout-out to fight Coach Robb Hunter, who taught both people and puppets how to realistically fight and draw blood.
Robert Askins’ Hand to God is hilarious when we concentrate on puppet Tyrone and his doings. He lives life large. Ah, but the human who Tyrone interacts with are just lonely even in the throes of sexual encounters. They are everyday people wanting to connect in some fashion with another human being. They just seem unable to without taking risks that will lead them away from their Church’s teachings. Over the course of Hand to God, the humans show themselves able to be resilient. Well, most of them.
As for Tyrone, this devilish cloth action figure of a hand puppet is resilient too. After all, were would we and religion be with a Devil in our midst? He even gives a wise epilogue, like a worldly barkeep can often provide at Last Call.
So go, enjoy, laugh, and contemplate as you will. Have a drink before and during. But, by all means, go!
Running Time: 85 minutes, with one intermission.
See my DCMTA colleague John Stoltenberg interview with Liam Forde.