Review: Hand to God
By Perry Tannenbaum
There are certainly instances when a touring version of a Broadway hit comes to Charlotte – or when a local company tackles a Broadway or off-Broadway show I’ve previously reviewed – that I’m tempted to tell people that they missed out by not catching this show up in New York. On the other hand, there are stellar productions like the Actor’s Theatre take on Robert Askins’ Hand to God, currently at the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, that make me wish to tell all who saw the Broadway version, “You wuz robbed!”
Elements of what director Chip Decker and his Actor’s Theatre cast deliver just make me wish to exclaim “Wow!” because they’re done so well, while others make me think “Of course!” because the Broadway production missed them. The wows begin with Decker’s set, proving once and for all that the Hadley is more than a make-do location until Actor’s settles into its new facility on Freedom Drive. Next year, we hope.
Seating capacity is in the off-Broadway category, but the height and width of the drab Texas church basement, where we meet Jason and his widowed mom, belies any cramped expectations. It’s high enough so that an unexpected entrance from street level can be fairly epic – and risky. When we adjourn to a nearby playground, a pair of swings can smoothly descend from the fly loft so that Jason’s tentative overtures to Jessica, his puppet class classmate, can go freakily awry.
The chief reason why things go wrong all through this dark 80-minute comedy is Jason’s puppet, whom he calls Tyrone. If what I read about Hand to God productions around the country is indicative, props designer Carrie Cranford has created four Tyrones. And maybe some spares. Each one is bigger, more ornate, and demonic than his predecessor. From what I remember – and what I can pull down on YouTube – Cranford’s latter creations are more fearsome than those that terrorized Broadway.
We see a relatively benign incarnation of Tyrone before the action begins, recounting the story of humanity leading up to the invention of the Devil as a convenient excuse for the evil that we do. But couldn’t this disclaimer be a diversionary tactic from the Devil? Bwa-ha-ha!
Askins, of course, wants to have it both ways. There are numerous reasons for us to conclude that Tyrone’s lewd spewings stem from his troubled past, most notably the death of his father, and his mom Margery’s outré way of coping with her grief. She’s still not a great mom, doesn’t have much control over her sexual cravings, and she’s forcing Jason into this whole church-and-puppetry scene.
Pressured by Pastor Greg to present a puppet show at an upcoming Sunday service, Margery is deaf to her son’s desperate pleas to give up puppeteering. So is Tyrone, who has developed a life – and a voice – of his own.
After similar bullied roles at Actor’s Theatre in Bad Jews and Stupid Fucking Bird, we can rely upon Chester Shepherd to be a frailer Jason than the more imposing Steven Boyer was on Broadway in 2015. But the softer Jason is paired in Shepherd with a more vehement, rabid, and guttural Tyrone than Boyer was at the Booth Theatre – a voice that leaves Cookie Monster in the dust, fully worthy of Cranford’s latter puppets. Shepherd’s manipulation of these puppets is as uncanny as the abrupt and violent shifts in his voice when Jason and Tyrone engage in their fiercest showdowns.
I read that one Jason/Tyrone in a regional production steamed his vocal cords after every performance. Not sure if that would be enough to repair the abuse I saw Shepherd inflict on his larynx. At certain points, I had to worry whether Shepherd had gotten carried away – OK, possessed – by his Tyrone. It’s an extraordinary performance, that’s for sure, but never a slick one: though Jason flaps Tyrone’s toothy yap, Askins doesn’t want the lad to attempt ventriloquism.
Nicely aligned with the diminutive Shepherd, Decker has deglamorized the older generation, offering us better assurance that Margery truly is at loose ends, that Pastor Greg might be desperate for her companionship, and that we’re truly in Cypress, Texas, and not Hollywood. Longtime leading man Mark Kudisch and Geneva Carr were less reassuring on Broadway than Brett Gentile and Marla Brown are at the Hadley.
Brown is more than sufficiently attractive to believably draw the attentions of Pastor Greg and Timothy, the resentful delinquent in her puppet class. But she comes at us frumpier, more frazzled and humdrum domesticated. That works so well for the nasty surprises she has in store for us and for the two teenage boys.
From the first time he performed at Actor’s Theatre in 2004 as a domineering cop in Lobby Hero, Gentile has shown the ability to be the tough guy, capable of truly bodacious bellowing if you set him loose. Yet he can turn around and be meek and pastoral, visibly wounded by Margery’s rejection. Unlike Kudisch, with his John Wayne bulk, when Gentile confronts Timothy or the rabid Tyrone, you can wonder what the outcome will be. These were probably the chief “Of course!” moments for me at the Hadley.
Grant Zavitkovsky isn’t as wiry or urban as his Broadway counterpart, so he doesn’t come across at first with quite the same nastiness and menace as Timothy, but his better looks and substantial size are better reasons for Jason to fear him and envy his success with women. There’s also a slight patina of complacency to Zavitkovsky that works very nicely before those instants when Margery and later Tyrone shock him.
Behind the multiple layers of her costume, Lizzie Medlin remains somewhat inscrutable as Jessica throughout Act 1. She recoils from Tyrone’s first breakouts with an utter spontaneity that compounds Jason’s embarrassment. Yet her later actions partially vindicate Tyrone’s contention that his lewd frankness was the best way to go. Nothing she does prepares us for her action heroics in Act 2.
All I’ve got say about that is to congratulate Medlin, Shepherd, Decker, and Cranford on the most hilarious puppet sex I’ve ever seen – and probably the best puppet therapy. Way better than Broadway, though perhaps the elderly ladies in the front row should have been warned that they were sitting in a splash zone.
Amid this unique brew of the bawdy, the violent, and the diabolical, Askins would have us contemplate the ontology of evil, the devil, and saviors. I could see where you might wish to skip that assignment.