If the image of a Trustus company member with a puppet on his hand in the promotional materials for Hand to God conjures up some déjà vu , that would make sense—the theatre produced the irreverent Sesame Street send-up Avenue Q back in 2012, showcasing the power and possibility of adult-oriented theatre that incorporates puppetry.
Given that, it’s hard not to make some surface-level comparisons to the two shows, particularly since they lean into the dependable gag of having puppets say naughty things. But while Avenue Q was toying directly with the staging and conventions of the traditional children’s programming around puppets, Hand to God uses another, lesser known convention of puppetry—sock puppet performances that fundamentalist churches often use to teach about the Bible to young ones—and spins off boldly from there. The expected biting satire lampooning conservative evangelicals is there, of course, but playwright Robert Askins actually peers deeper into the very nature of storytelling, and of mythmaking itself. He tellingly bookends the play with soliloquies (fittingly from a puppet) that wax poetic and half-crazed on the subject matter to prime the audience for such connection. And it works. To paraphrase Joan Didion, Hand to God is fundamentally about the stories—the fictional stories—we tell ourselves in order to live.
The building blocks of the plot are relatively simple—a grieving widow, Margery (Jennifer Hill), and her teenage son, Jason (Jonathan Monk), find solace in their church’s puppetry club. Pastor Greg (Paul Kaufman) is into Margery, Jason is into girl-next-door fellow club member Jessica (Martha Hearn Kelly), and troubled teen Timmy (Patrick Dodds) is also into Margery. The devil gets involved. Shenanigans ensue.
Central to those shenanigans is Jason’s masterful sock puppet alter-ego, Tyrone, whose foul-mouthed antics and increasingly belligerent presence gradually subsumes Jason’s character. Tyrone voices the most extreme parts of Jason’s psyche--anger, fear, love, lust, all get ribald treatment from the puppet even as Jason himself remains shy and meek. The thematic layers that get worked through in this performance--the trials of puberty, the bewildering emotional highs and lows of religion, the grief over a lost parent--all get lifted up, swirled around and interrogated by the crazed humor rather than turned into punchlines. A great example of this (mild spoiler alert) occurs during an extended puppet sex scene, which is both as comical as you’d imagine it but also surprisingly rife with sweetness and emotional complexity as it managed to capture the screaming sex drive and shuffling awkwardness that is endemic to adolescent dating rituals.
On the whole, this is one of Trustus’s finer productions in recent years, with a would-be boring set that manages to get all of the nuances and details of a church rec room down tight, with the dated evangelical posters and chintzy decorations evoking that highly specific atmosphere. And when it rivetingly transforms into the devil’s happy place at one point, with demonic, upside down crosses and lewd messages scrawled on the walls, the place becomes positively electrifying.
Too, the casting and performances here are sharp and delightful. The show itself requires Monk to give a masterful performance as Jason to make the whole thing tick, and watching him make machine gun-fire shifts between Jason’s voice and mannerisms and Tyrone’s will remind you of the magic of theatre over and over again throughout the show. The supporting cast around him is equally superb though— Paul Kaufman nails the ingratiating, slightly delusional self-confidence of a do-good-but-not-that-good pastor. Jenny Mae Hill deftly pulls the young Southern widow caricature in just enough to bring genuine pathos to the character while also gracefully hitting all the comic notes as well. Martha Hearn Kelly and Patrick Dodds both take on the kind of roles we’ve seen them in before, but there’s no denying that they both can convincingly bring to life the girl-next-door romantic interest and nascent bad boy, respectively. Kelly’s Jessica is particularly good as she seemingly calibrates a relatively straightforward character to match Jason’s eccentricities in a way that could have been forced but instead manages to feel tender and organic.
In addition to the set, director Patrick Michael Kelly’s careful blocking is also a technical showcase, particularly when allowing Monk and the rest of the puppeteers (primarily Hearn’s Jessica) to move around the stage quite naturally alongside puppets that feel every bit like separate characters from the actors bringing them to life. There’s a sense of well-rounded excellence that pervades this production, and it’s a pleasure to see such execution on a local stage.
What most surprises though, is how well the play itself deserves such thoughtful production. For all of its acerbic one-liners and comedic foibles, it’s making some astute connections that will leave you buzzing as you leave the theater. The web of connections Askins draws between sexual desire, religion, mental health, and storytelling are sharper and more thought-provoking than dramas with a tenth of this play’s charm and wit.
And one thing’s for sure—you’ll never underestimate the power—or really trust, even—a sock puppet ever again. –Kyle Petersen
Hand to God runs through May 6 on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus Theatre. Tickets are available at trustus.org.