'Hand To God' Is A Raucous, Irreligious Riot At Berkeley Rep
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
Robert Askins's somewhat frightening, wholly hilarious black comedy Hand to God is less likely to scare off too many unsuspecting Christians unclear about its blasphemous premise in its run at Berkeley Rep as it apparently did during its 2015 run on Broadway. Religion, especially a Texan brand of hypocritically wholesome Christianity, is ripe fodder for humor in these parts, and it was clearly Askins's hope to shake theatergoers up a bit while making them laugh with the delightfully angry and vengeful creation of Tyrone, a cute sock puppet turned, possibly, possessed by Satan. As voiced with Beetlejuice-esque zeal by young actor Michael Doherty, who must also play the more innocent Jason whose hand is also possessed by Tyrone, the puppet becomes both a wicked modern take on the ancient, violent trickster puppet tradition of Punch & Judy, and a truth-hurling enemy of all things phony and righteous.
Tyrone first comes to life innocently enough, as the after-school creation in Jason's mom's church puppet group, which is attended by two other teens about Jason's age. As mom Margery, actress Laura Odeh delivers a broadly comic if not always nuanced performance, as Margery struggles to understand why her usually obedient son is suddenly rebelling, just as both of them are dealing with the recent death of her husband. They are joined in the puppet group by Jessica (Carolina Sanchez), who is at work on her own girl puppet and seems to have a crush on Jason; and Timothy (ACT grad Michael McIntire) who only has eyes for the older, widowed Margery. Margery meanwhile has had to fend off advances from Pastor Greg (David Kelly), and [SPOILER ALERT] perhaps wouldn't mind a roll in the hay with the teenage Timothy.
Tyrone delivers opening and closing monologues in the show discussing the all-too-convenient trope of saying "the devil made me do it," with Christians over the centuries blaming all manner of wrongdoing on demonic possession — when, in reality, right and wrong are constructs, Tyrone says, and we all have "devils" inside us.
What transpires, though, is a hilarious, at times shockingly violent romp, tightly directed by David Ivers, through moral ambiguity and revenge, with the audience never totally sure if Jason himself has been taken over by a split personality, or if he could be, indeed, a victim of demonic possession.
The set by designer Jo Winiarski, an extremely tidy and dynamic one on the small Peet's Theater stage, is a great asset to the production as well, with Jason and his possessed puppet able to appear and disappear as from the gates of hell, several times over. And clocking in at just 80 minutes, it's a tidy two-act play as well, with little to no time wasted.
Askins is a playwright obviously possessed with a fearlessness and flair for the strange, as well as a Sam Shepard-influenced drive to push characters to a frenzied, inevitable breaking point. He says the wackiness of the premise wasn't calculated, he just says in an interview he started to think "What if it's a puppet? What if all these hyper-masculine, out-of-date ideas about the masculine are put in the mouth of a puppet, and then it just did the thing?" And he admits both that he actually hates puppets, and that the play grew out of his own humorous take on growing up in Texas, finally saying, "Alright, let's get weird. Let's get really fucking weird."
Hand to God is weird, for sure, but also perfect in its way without even having to be too mean-spirited about Christian believers. And Tyrone answers the question "What if you took a Muppet and gave him teeth, both literal and figurative, and made the kids leave the room?" The result isn't pretty, or nice.