By turns riotously funny and squirmingly uncomfortable, John Cash Carpenter’s production of Robert Askins’s Hand to God provides a scathing critique of organized religion from the lips of a foul-mouthed puppet with never-blinking eyes and a toothy grin. Looking for a coherent plot? Search elsewhere; Tyrone the puppet’s irreverent brand of commentary remains the main attraction.
In a church basement plastered with colorful posters (scenic design by Brandi Hargrove and director Josh Cash Carpenter), Margery leads a puppet club with teenagers Jessica, Timmy, and her son Jason. Jason’s father has recently passed, and Margery uses the puppet club to distract herself from her grief. What begins innocently enough takes a hard-left turn into something more sinister as Jason discovers that his puppet Tyrone may be possessed not only by his own talent and joy but also Satan himself. More a series of sketches than a cohesive narrative, Hand to God unravels and goes off the rails as Tyrone gains more and more power and the danger rises.
The peril comes not only in the form of the satanic puppet, but also through the sexual harassment endured by the women in the show. Thoughts of the #metoo movement can’t help but float to the surface over the course of the evening as time and again men stroke, come on to and grope the women. Even after these sexual advances, the women are forced embody the role of the comforter for the men leaning on the crutch of “nice guy syndrome” who use and abuse them all night. Instead of grasping the opportunity for social commentary and providing a call to action, Askins reduces the female plight to a series of jokes. Ignoring the complicit behavior appears impossible, but Askins and Carpenter succeed anyway. Casual misogyny runs amok from Askins’s plot to Hargrove and Carpenter’s costume design which reinforces gender norms in their use of stereotypical color palettes.
Clad in reds and blues which appear to relate to his character’s teen fan-boy stereotype, Nicholas Vitela leads the cast in a charged performance, switching deftly between the roles of Jason and Tyrone. Vitela’s absence in select scenes triggers the counting of seconds until his return. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast does not match his level. Jose Moreno as Timmy has memorable moments such as a particularly manic tear in the basement, but more often than not he pushes one step too far. Casey Radle’s Margery leans more toward stylized over-acting than realistic existence. Tatyana Ramirez exudes a youthful innocence in her portrayal as Jason’s love interest, Jessica, but Carpenter does not fully utilize her talents. Jabe Reynolds’s Pastor Gregg, clad in 50 shades of drab, oozes slime from the start. What could have been performed as subtle becomes awkward, overt, and predatory to the detriment of the production.
The set design by Carpenter and Hargrove portrays multiple locations due to its ability to fold inward, creating spaces for Jason’s bedroom and Pastor Gregg’s office. A particularly clever piece of design was incorporated in the form of two headlights and a Chevy pickup truck grill bearing the license plates “Drivin’ for Jesus”. Despite the strengths of the set design, scene transitions lasted long enough to kill any momentum the show had built up. The technical elements may soar to the heavens, but the execution drags them right back down to hell.
Director Carpenter certainly mounts a production filled with good intentions (and we all know where the latter are said to lead). What ultimately overcomes the missteps in this Hand to God is Vitela’s performance; he puts on a hell of a show.