SLAC's Hand to God is Raucous, Irreligious, and It's a Must-See
By Blair Howell
The puppets in HAND TO GOD aren't Julie Taymor's puppets Salt Lake City theatergoers recently saw in the bus-and-truck production of THE LION KING.Salt Lake Acting Company primarily nurtures and produces works by new and emerging playwrights, some of which are area residents. Now in its 46th season, SLAC enjoys record-breaking season-subscriber renewals eager to be surprised by its productions of "brave, contemporary theater," as outlined in its mission statement - along with a once-a-season staging of an always delightful production designed for young children. Two recent examples are A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, based on the books by Arnold Lobel; and an adaptation of Dr. Seuss's THE CAT IN THE HAT.
And generally included in each season's selection is one daring show that is fresh from Broadway/Off-Broadway or recently enjoyed success within the New York City theater community. Last season, the production in that category was sensational playwright Aaron Posner's sensational STUPID FUCKING BIRD, loosely and comically adapted from Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL; and the new season promises the highly anticipated staging of the a five-time Tony Award-winning musical, FUN HOME, which enjoyed a long and successful run on the Great White Way for a musical with a challenging topic. SLAC was able to wield its power so FUN HOME is among the first regional productions. (One of my all-time favorite pieces seen at SLAC was a phenomenal staging of BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson in late 2012.)
This season's offering in SLAC's established and fairly-well-known category is the uproarious HAND TO GOD. The play was briefly seen at off off Broadway's adventurous Ensemble Studio Theatre, but caused such a sensation that it was eventually transferred to a larger Broadway theater where it enjoyed a long, successful run. With the intimacy of its main stage, SLAC is the perfect theater to produce HAND TO GOD.
Enough backstory on SLAC's production choices. Now let's move on to the company's current staging.
I feel duty-bound to not reveal the central element that wickedly propels the pitch-black comedy forward. Because the show would be so much more enjoyable if only brief details are known about the plot. Better to give character outlines with suggestions on how the show unfolds so the story can be fully enjoyed.
With my LION KING reference, you know puppets are involved, and in an opening scene we see the nearly unhinged Margery, grieving the death of her husband and struggling to raise their rebellious son, Jason, as a single-parent. At the suggestion of Pastor Greg, she has formed a Sunday School "puppet club" in the basement of a holy high-roller Texas church. The intent is for the unhappy, sexually repressed Jason and his two rowdy and sarcastic teen friends (Timothy and Jolene) to better learn Bible stories and sign Christian songs while interacting with the crude puppets.
Needless to say, HAND TO GOD is a scathing satire of fundamental Christian beliefs.
What I won't explain is the transformation that Jason's puppet, named Tyrone (and is a wholly unique character to Jason) undergoes, because that would simply ruin all the fun of discovering it for yourself. (One hint: Naming deity in the play's title is ironic.)
With director/fight director Christopher Duval firmly at the helm, SLAC's staging is particularly strong, and the production values seen in many aspects of the show are top-notch. This includes the clever set design by Gage Williams, sock puppet design by S. Glenn Brown and Linda L. Brown, and costume design by Philip R. Lowe.
There is compassion in every character playwright Robert Askins creates, and the performances at SLAC are universally vivid, with well-drawn characterizations.
Riley O'Toole makes Jason a likeable and very relatable character, but his pent-up rage and anger toward his mother is not wholly convincing. But by altering his voice he also becomes a second character, Tyrone, when a sock puppet is over his arm and hand. When O'Toole performs as Tyrone, he sizzles, and the puppet becomes such a complete character that O'Toole has double credit for playing Jason/Tyrone in the playbill. The outstanding performance of the cast is from Alexandra Harbold who shimmers as Margery with clear conviction through her own transformation as she moves through multiple layers of pain and excitement and frustration.
Nathan Vaughn as Timothy and Amy Ware as Jessica (with Ware also acting in brief pulse-raising scene with her puppet named Jolene opposite Tyrone) are believable and funny as the other puppet-ministry teenagers.
Daniel Beecher gives a solid performance as Pastor Greg. His role is underwritten, but Beecher breathes life into the largely cardboard character.
While THE LION KING is entirely suitable for young children, including babes in arms at the Eccles production, HAND TO GOD - with its adult material, extreme profanity, violence, and sexuality - is completely unsuitable for young children. Yes, HAND TO GOD is obscene, sacrilegious, sexual, bloody - and completely hilarious. Thanks to SLAC for the brazen glee that so naturally prompts the company to stage HAND TO GO in Salt Lake City.