Monday, February 13, 2017

"Hand to God"

Hand to God
Robert Askins

Tyrone & Michael Doherty
In a brightly hued room full of rainbows, craft materials, and more than one happy Jesus, a friendly looking sock puppet pops out of a small, make-shift, cardboard theatre and starts telling us his version of the world’s beginning.  This is not the Genesis, seven-day version usually coming from a church puppet.  This is an alternative, Cliffs Notes history about how our stupid, and unshaven ancestors “rutted” about “careless in the night” and started camping together (“that’s where the trouble started”).  He tells us that “some asshole” invented right and wrong and that “right is for all of us ... wrong ... just for you”).  The cute puppet also offhandedly remarks that the same “motherfucker” who thought up “group kill also invented the devil.”  Before suddenly disappearing, our wide-mouthed historian with his heart-shaped tongue leaves us with a premonition of what is to come: “When I have acted badly, in order that I may stay around the campfire, all I have to do is say ... the devil made me do it.”

Welcome to Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of what is turning out to be the most-produced play in the 2016-2017 theatrical season across America: Robert Askin’s Hand to God.  Building on a Church tradition that goes back hundreds of years and continues today, the playwright brings to full life a puppet to be a witness of truth.  In this case, his revealed truths are increasingly full of blasphemy, vulgarities, and all the secrets that those around him do not want anyone to know – or even to admit to themselves.  And as the puppet blasts through his revelations, those within ear blasts reluctantly face, fight, and finally in some cases stand up to their own demons and the hurts, disappointments, and resulting loneliness their own plagues have showered upon them.

Laura Odeh & David Kelley
Margery is an attractive, middle-aged widow who is trying to deal with the recent, sudden death of her husband and a sullen, too-distant teenage son by volunteering at her church in an evening program where teens make puppets for spreading the good news about Jesus.  Her slightly older minister, Pastor Greg, both wants the kids to perform for an upcoming service and Margery to return his amorous suggestions (something she politely and repeatedly passes on).  Besides her introverted son Jason, the other two teen puppeteers are Jessica, a sweet but slightly nerdy girl with eyes for Jason, and the class bully and too-mature-for-his-age, Timothy (who also comes on strong to an intially repulsed Jessica).

Michael Doherty
Jason has created what turns out to be his alter-ego self in the form of a wide-eyed, green-sock puppet with orange locks (looking like a distant cousin of Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog) – a palm pal he is reluctant ever to unhand.  Michael Doherty is astoundingly masterful in playing both the shy, seemingly innocent Jason and the buddy on his hand, Tyrone, who soon transforms to a monster out of his control.  Their first real gig occurs on the playground swings as he and Tyrone reenact for a fascinated Jessica a hilarious “Who’s On First” routine, alternating split-second-timed quips in similar voices with just a bit different intonations.  But then Tyrone ridicules Jessica for not knowing that Jason of course had not just made up this famous script.  And as he starts telling Jessica that Jason has the hots for her and “keeps touching himself in the dark” when he things of her, Tyrone’s voice suddenly deepens and begin its journey to something more threatening, evil, and, yes, devilish in its raspy tones.

Michael McIntire & Michael Doherty
Tyrone takes on his satanic personality with ‘truth-telling’ outbursts full of expletives never meant for a church’s interior – doing so especially when he is around those he (and Jason) see as truly demonic.  The puppet loses no time going after Timothy, whose cocky, irreverent, ruffian manners are played to the hilt by Michael McIntire – along with teen sex drives clearly sent skyward by raging hormones and by the presence of Jason’ mom, Margery.  Whenever Tyrone blasts into Timothy (and in time everyone else) with his own expletive-filled insults, Michael Doherty’s Jason-half is quick in the next second to be stunned, incredulous, and embarrassed with his own wide eyes, face of horror, and meek, “I don’t know what’s going on.”  As Tyrone develops sharp teeth and red-veined eyes, the harm he is able to inflict becomes potentially physically as well as verbally devastating.  All the time, he also wastes no opportunities to use his little pencil-thin, long arms to turn Jason’s head to look him eye to eye in order to face realities about the son’s anger toward his mom and his unrequited hurt in losing his father.  Together as one, Jason and Tyrone are the masterful results of exceptional acting by young Mr. Doherty.

Laura Odeh &  Michael McIntire
As Margery, Laura Odeh displays an incredibly wide range of emotions with big personality twists and turns.  Her initial motherly twitters and teases with the kids and her oh-so-polite turn-downs of the pastor’s come-ons provide little hint of the raging vulgarities and venom to come, much less the eventual sensually crazed responses to the teenager-turned-adult Timothy when he keeps advancing his sex drives on her.  Ms. Odeh’s performance is shockingly funny while also stunningly painful.  That the playwright has created a character who stretches our imagination to believe anyone would actually react in all the ways she does in no way diminishes the power or impact Margery has on the play and its overall message of facing one’s demons, accepting them, and moving on.

Michael Doherty & Carolina Sanchez
Carolina Sanchez also transforms before our very eyes, moving from the nice girl next door to a mover and shaker who is not about to let Tyrone destroy the sweet Jason she likes.  When she dons her own buxom beauty of a puppet (think Miss Piggy) and sets her up in a wild, sex-filled episode with Tyrone, not only does the ensuing scene make the Avenue Q puppet sex scene seem kindergarten in nature, the acting prowess of Ms. Sanchez (and once again, of Mr. Doherty) shines as two completely different scenes occur simultaneously, played by the same actors as both people and puppets.  Nothing to be said but simply brilliant writing, directing, and acting.

David Kelly is the awkwardly amorous preacher who tries to offer Margery the “waiting arms of the church” for solace – all the time clearly hoping she will leap into his one outspread arms (and eventually his bed).  There is oily sliminess spread over the good pastor but also a somewhat genuine righteous desire to help that gets tested to the fullest by all the devils rising around him in the church’s basement.  Mr. Kelly is perfectly suited credibly to pull off all sides of the exasperated lover and horrified minister. 

Coming off 2015’s superbly directed “One Man, Two Gov’nors” at the Rep, David Ivers returns to orchestrate another uproariously funny production that opens the floodgates to pour out scenes that titillate, shock, and totally satisfy.  Not only has he assembled a cast up to the task of his vision, his creative team could hardly be better in their own performances.  First among these is scenic designer Jo Winiarski whose rotating walls and scenes suddenly rising from below and emerging from the back depths are a show unto themselves.  (And there is some wonderful tongue-in-cheek touches, too, like a certain clock’s stuck time setting above the basement’s door.) 

Much aid comes from the outstanding lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols who helps highlight Tyrone’s threat of wickedness at just the right moments.  Meg Neville’s costumes try their best to convince us of Margery’s wholesome goodness, Timothy’s teenage but skin-deep bravado, and the Pastor’s aw-shucks exterior.  And of course, Amanda’s Villalobos’s puppet designs are key to the play’s total success.

At a time we all need to be shaken up to see the devils among us (as if we were not already enough shaken by each day’s latest Tweets and Facebook headlines), Berkeley Repertory’s production of Hand to God comes along. When all humans have once again left him alone in the same puppet theatre where we first met him, Tyrone alert us with his final words to be ready to find help from evil in the places/people where we least expect to find it.  Parting he says, “The thing about a savior is you never know where to look.  Might be just the place you saw the devil before.”

Rating: 5 E

Hand to God continues through March 19, 2017 on the Main Stage of Berkeley Repertory’s Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

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