Raucous comedy ‘Hand to God’ on stage through Feb. 4
Starting with Adam and Eve, humans have pointed to forces beyond themselves to dodge responsibility when things go wrong. We shift blame, if not to a serpent then perhaps to a dominating parent — but to a talking sock?
Devilish sock puppet Tyrone taunts and tempts his five human companions into mayhem in the raucous, adult-only comedy by Robert Askins entitled “Hand to God.” The SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting its New England premiere through February 4 in the Virginia Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Playwright Askins, 36, until recently also a Brooklyn bartender, sets his play in his own hometown, Cypress, a suburb of Houston, and aside from its demon puppet, draws some of the plot from his own early life.
The set up
Jason, a sweet-natured but desperately unhappy teenager whose father has just died, longs for help and understanding from his mother, Margery. But she is preoccupied with her own grief, which she buries in her puppet ministry. Jason helps her with the puppet show practice, which they hold in the basement of their church. But he is disturbed to find that his own puppet, Tyrone, has taken on a nasty life of its own.
A truth-spewing demon, Tyrone voices the hidden thoughts and desires of others, and with slander, lies and innuendos, preys on their fears and pain, provoking ill will and chaos. And yes, this is comedy.
After its 2011 premiere off-Broadway, the play gained a second run in a new production that in 2015 moved to Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations. During this theater season, “Hand to God” is the most produced play in America, with 13 productions.
Directed by David R. Gammons, the Speakeasy production is a showcase of local talent that radiates the joy of ensemble acting. We enjoy watching these actors go about creating roles that brim with humanity. The cast of five makes us care about these characters and see ourselves within them. Even the satanic Tyrone gains a moment of sympathy. It turns out that he, too, can be vulnerable and succumb to desires, seduced by a female puppet animated by Jessica, who helps her friend Jason loosen Tyrone’s grip.
Eliott Purcell gives a sensational performance in the dual roles of raspy-voiced trickster Tyrone, and Jason, who longs for consolation and laments, “I don’t want to be bad.”
A versatile actor who is a member of Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Marianna Bassham plays Margery, convincingly rendering both her quiet hysteria and volcanic release. Lewis D. Wheeler plays Pastor Greg, at first dorky and sanctimonious, with a squeaky Texas accent, and later as a steadfast man in a crisis.
Josephine Elwood is a natural as Jessica, a sensible girl who is sweet on Jason. As bad boy-man Timothy, Dario Ladani Sanchez gives his character’s feeling for Margery a poignant touch of sincerity.
Puppet cast members are Tyrone, and briefly, the seductive Jolene, handled by Elwood. Demonstrating the intimate power of puppetry, the actors gained guidance from Roxanna Myhrum, artistic director of Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline, and Jonathan Little, who crafted the sock puppets.
The staging is part of the fun, with expressive sets and props by Cristina Todesco; costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley that underscore personalities; and shape-shifting lighting by Jeff Adelberg that combines with the sets to turn a crayon-colored children’s playroom into a candle-lit demons’ den.
In fact, the magic begins with the sets. A red curtain within a frame creates a stage within a stage, inviting the audience into a show-and-tell that mingles the familiar — a benign gathering in a neighborhood church — with the strange — a puppet that takes on a life of its own and prompts humans to let loose with their darker urges.
Surrounding both sides of the curtained stage is scaffolding that allows actors to scale up to a second level and simultaneously perform two scenes or instantly switch back or forward in time. The exposed scaffolding also suits the truth-seeking thrust of the play, which shows people as works-in-progress, baring their bodies and souls.
The production’s humor reaches right down to the props. As the bond between Jason and Tyrone grows, boy and puppet both sport similar flannel shirts and spiked hair. Discovering her inner turmoil, Margery dumps out the scraps of paper she had just picked up in a fit of manic tidiness. Prepared to perform an exorcism, Pastor Greg heads out armed with his crucifix, Bible and Mac laptop.
Running two hours with an intermission, this fast-moving production features lots of physical comedy. Its delirious peaks include two dance-like duets that lock actors in mutual seduction — one between humans, another between puppets.
Early in the play, with a weary “Okay,” the unhappy and confused Jason yields his will to Tyrone, who sets all kinds of mayhem in motion. The spell cast by the actors generates real suspense: Will any of these characters be harmed? Will good or evil prevail?
Jason finds that releasing Tyrone’s grip is devilishly hard to do. Taunting him, Tyrone says, “Did you think it was going to be easy?”