By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
Times change. When I was a kid, the word “puppet” meant “The Howdy Doody Show.” Later it was “Sesame Street.” Then came “Avenue Q,” and puppets got sexy and vulgar and a little weird.
Now we have Robert Askins’ off-the-charts “Hand to God,” which posits a demonic puppet in the hands of Jason (Caleb Foote), son of the recently widowed Margery (DeAnna Driscoll). Margery, barely functional herself, is trying to run a puppetry class for church teens in the local Lutheran church basement in Cypress, Texas. She’s particularly stressed right now, because Pastor Greg (Jason Heil) has just told her she and her “Christketeers” are scheduled to present a show at the church next week. And he’s trying to make moves on her.
Also in the class are typical teens Timothy (Garrett Marshall), horny and none too bright (but he knows how to get the chicks), and Jessica (Christina Flynn), a little snooty and spacey but sweet.
But when Jason’s puppet Tyrone unexpectedly takes over (demonic possession?) — spouting consistently foul language, doing and saying things nobody should do or say (at least not in public) and making the point that we all have subterranean desires we usually choose not to mention in polite conversation — all hell breaks loose.
It’s an amusing idea … for a while. But my attention started to wander when it went from gross to disgusting, with violence that will remind you of Vincent van Gogh and worse things. I couldn’t wait for the end.
“Hand to God” has a real history: Askins was born in Cypress, Texas, into a Protestant family, and his mother did lead a puppet ministry at the church. His father also died when Askins was a teenager.
The production can’t be faulted. Set designer Robin Roberts’ rotating set moves nicely from the church basement (looking a bit like a primary school classroom with its cheery “Jesus loves you” posters) to the pastor’s office to a playground.
The actors can’t be faulted either. Marshall and Flynn are convincingly familiar as the teens in the class; Driscoll is amusingly distracted as the harried (and hit-on) teacher; and Heil plays the standard hypocritical pastor well.
But this show belongs to Foote, who has the head-spinning job of portraying both the shy, diffident Jason and the harsh, antagonistic and extremely profane Tyrone at the same time. I’m tempted to say it’s worth seeing the show just for this astonishing performance.
Let’s face it, there are points to be made about the hypocrisy of adults (who often try to blame someone else for their less-than-upright actions) and religion, where one standard copout is “the devil made me do it.”
I’m always up for a discussion of ethics, morality, honesty and the like. But when you give that to me in a lengthy, profanity-laden diatribe including voluminous F-words, scatological references and puppet fellatio, I’m more likely to tune out than wade through the garbage in search of hidden gems. Your mileage may vary.
“Hand to God” is one of the most frequently performed shows of the year.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.