Salt Lake Magazine: Hand to God Review

17 April 2017

Review: SLAC's Hand to God

By Jeremy Pugh

Two words. Puppet sex. Yes. Those two words do actually mean “puppets having sex,” which was not at all what I expected last night during the preview of Robert Askins’ devilishly funny play Hand to God at Salt Lake Acting Company. And, while I’ve no prior experience evaluating the quality of simulated hand puppet intercourse in a theatrical setting, I’m pretty sure they nailed it.

Thanks to Avenue Q, we now have a sub-genre of theater that employs previously cute and innocent puppets in un-cute and depraved enterprises. Hand to God confidently claims this space and strides purposely forward into brave new blasphemous lands. Set in a Texas-ish church Sunday school classroom, the ensemble is preparing a puppet presentation for the main congregation overseen by Pastor Greg (Daniel Beecher).

The puppet master (mistress) is the lovely Margery (Alexandra Harbold) who is latching onto Jesus—and this whole puppet thing—to keep the wheels on following the unexpected death of her husband. Her son, Jason (Riley O’Toole) an un-athletic, slight boy who naturally excels at puppetry, is struggling alongside his mother (mightily, we will discover). Meanwhile the girl, Jessica (Amy Ware) puckishly fends of the creepy advances of the class bully Timothy (Nathan Vaughn) who has a boner (literally) for Margery.

Thus, the scene is set for Jason’s mental breakdown or literal possession by the devil—the play muddies this water here (bloodies it, actually). His puppet, Tyrone, somehow acquires teeth (again, literally) and takes on the world—mother, pastor, bully—and woos the girl that Jason likes as only a demonic hand puppet can.

This shit is funny. It’s also dark and strange and makes for a delicious evening of theater that also includes some pretty impressive puppetry from the players. This is the best show of SLAC’s season, it’s cool and raw and every actor on the stage gets to hit the gas as the play moves through its many absurd and startling high notes.

O’Toole’s character(s), possessed as he/they is/are, gets all the best lines and shines as the schizoid Jason/Tyrone. This includes a spot-on “Who’s on First” bit and convincingly kicking his own hand’s ass at the play’s freaky and bloody climax.

Harbold plays a mother (and puppetry teacher) at her wit’s end, lashing out against and toward everyone—and thing— around her. Her fiery fight with Vaughn’s Timothy is at once hilarious and frightening as she runs right up to and then crosses the line. Vaughn’s trashy Benjamin Braddock bit is awesome and even a little scary. Turns out the man-cub has claws.

To the mealy-mouthed rescue comes Pastor Greg, the milquetoast, sexually frustrated church leader faced with possibly of having to perform an exorcism in his own Sunday school class room. At first, he’s equal parts skeezy and smarmy but Beecher plays the Pastor with depth and we warm to him as he somewhat bravely faces the WTF shit happening in his church’s basement with as much dignity and wisdom as anyone could muster.

Now we get to the puppet sex. You remember the puppet sex right?

Jessica’s buxom hand puppet named (what else?) Jolene, gamely takes on the fiendish Tyrone and Amy Ware plays this incredibly awkward scene to a perfect cringing conclusion. How, you might ask, does this happen? I can’t really explain. It’s sort of a seeing-is-believing deal here but I’m giggling just thinking about it.

Gage William’s set is spot-on. It includes details only someone who has been to Sunday school would know—the creepy Jesus-with-adoring-children picture, the dingy, ratchet toys on the shelf, the hand-me-down chairs. It was right, right down to the Christ is Lord bobble head on the Pastor’s desk.

Director Christopher Duval, whose credits include a specialization in stage combat, must have had a blast directing the puppet-on-puppet, puppet-on-human and human-on-human violence that courses throughout the play. Bravo on some convincingly epic battles between man and felt.

Hand to God is a very interesting—albeit profane—play about so much more than mere puppet sex and violence. It’s a play about realizing you can’t blame your own failings, mistakes or plain old human frailty on either God or the devil.

The puppet made me do it.

Hand to God runs through May 14 at Salt Lake Acting Company.