Saturday, October 28, 2017

“Hand To God ”: The Sock Heard ‘Round The Theatre World.

One could be impressed that the recent show now at The San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown, “Hand To God” is the most often produced in America.

Given the current political atmosphere and no holds barred attitudes, bigotry and misogyny, name -calling and disrespect for just about anything and everything; f- bombs, giving one the finger and outrageous goings and comings, I would have to say I’m not surprised. On the other hand I’m not impressed either.

Raves flow from the mouths of theatre goers in just about every city, state and theatre company about Robert Askins’ dark comedy featuring the puppet Tyrone denigrating anything in ‘his’ path from sex to religion to death of a loved one to bullying, to vulgarity to just plain “the devil made me do it” attitude.

“Hand to God” takes place in a church in Cypress, Texas in 1997 where Margery (an impressive De Anna Driscoll, “Quality of Life” and “Gamma Rays”), who recently lost her husband, is in charge of a puppet making class to help her through her difficult times. 

It’s certainly not unusual for churches and synagogues to use puppets in schools; we do it in my synagogue during children’s services as a learning tool. No objections here. 

In the opening scene, and there are about 12 short ones, when the voice behind the pulpit (he’s a puppet) begins his sermon: “In the beginning there was no divide. We were too stupid to be anything but what we were. When you had to sh*t . You just let it drop. It was a golden age.” 

It gets worse.
Tyrone looking rather harmless
These ramblings go downhill from there and end with blaming all the ills of the world, as we know them on the devil. Somewhere between obscenities and puppetry at its best, the message that things were better in the beginning when we had no rules is riddled with filthy talk and obscene behavior, for the sake of what, shock treatment? 

Color me out of that sermon.

Tyrone, the sock puppet in question seems permanently affixed to Jason’s arm or as some might venture is Jason’s id. That might excuse the volley of F bombs and anger that Jason is trying to hold back as Jason, the young man, who can’t seem to put the lid on Tyrone the puppet from going off the beaten track. His anger comes fast and furious but we learn that Tyrone is a demon, literally with a mind of his own and we’re off and running.  
Tyrone with Caleb Foote
Impressive, as in wowed, is the performance by the extremely talented young Caleb Foote who seamlessly goes back and fourth between the devil in Tyrone and the coming of age Jason’s dueling personalities fighting to either kill the beast off in opposition or for God’s sake, rip the damn sock off your arm and be done with it! We all might be better off for it.

In one of the best choreographed scenes of the play Jason and his crush Jessica (Christina L. Flynn) are on the playground and Jason, trying to play cool does the classic Abbot and Costello routine “Whose on First”. 

Now that was also impressive.
Christina L. Flynn with Jolene

Back at the church basement and the unimpressed the adults in the house and there are few, don’t hold back at all. They ramp up the hysteria to a fault when they learn that the runaway sock Tyrone, is the master or devil incarnate attached to the arm of 15 year old Jason, who can’t seem to reign him in.  They don’t have a clue either.  Exorcism didn’t work at all.

Margery has more to deal with than just the loss of her husband. Her son is out of control with a puppet that is also out of control. She too is heading toward ‘the out of control” category as we see soon enough.

Interference comes in the form of Pastor Greg (Jason Heil) and his attraction toward Margery, which is pathetic, ill timed and irreverent. Heil, (“Angels in America”, “Lion in Winter”) a seasoned actor in his own right looks the part, plays the pastor admirably, but from this point of view, it’s a thankless role. 

The more successful of the two after Margery’s heart (?) is the young, misbehaved and oversexed Timothy (Garrett Marshall) whose lust for Margery is obvious to everyone but the pastor who woos her with gusto.

When Timothy (whose mother is in rehab while he’s supposedly making puppets) and Margery do finally hook up it’s such a demeaning on the table -top quickie that yours truly felt embarrassed. 

All this, a few more obscenities and some high squealing from the balcony on opening had me willing my id to scream out loud, “Get me out of here!”
Garrett Marshall and DeAnna Driscoll
There are some plusses: Christina L. Flynn’s nerdy Jessica, another student in the puppet class, and her puppet sidekick Jolene are a breath of fresh air on some levels.  

On another, well… Jolene has plans for Tyrone and it doesn’t involve sermons. No, it’s all about puppet sex that’s so physically graphic that you almost forget they are puppets after all. The numbness is settling in.   

“Hand to God” premiered Off-Off-Broadway in 2011. From there it went to Off-Broadway and finally in 2015 it landed on Broadway. It opened in London in 2016. So fast up the ladder of success it is now making it to regional theatres and the SD Rep through Nov. 12th

Introducing it on opening night director Sam Woodhouse gleefully mentioned that it is the most produced show now running.

Praises go out to set designer Robin Roberts for her rotating church basement decorated in everything Jesus, Charlotte Devaux for her costume design, Trevor Norton, lighting design and his magic trick of on again off again fluorescent lights, Matt Lescault-Wood, sound design, George Ye as fight director and a hearty hand to puppetry consultant Lynne Jennings

There are some messages to be gleaned that come with the suffering of having to sit through some pretty rough and tough satire, blood- letting and shock treatment in the form of a sock treatment.

Most of us don’t take the devil may care attitude although we might want a Tyrone in our corner when the pedal hits the metal. Most of us are sympathetic to grieving widows and coming of age teens, and for what it’s worth, responsibility for self is of prime importance.
Tyrone the denom puppet and Caleb Foote's Jason trying to get rid of him.
‘The trouble with the devil is that you need him, then you need him to go the fu*k away’, 

As my theatre buddy assured, “Hand to God” is for those not in my age demographic. Hand to God he’s right.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 12th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619.544.1000
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego, 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $42.00
Venue: Lyceum Stage
Photo: Daren Scott


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