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Hand to God: heartfelt production of a somewhat obvious script

by | Jun 1, 2017 | Review | 0 comments

The Arts Club is living off the avails of puppet sex. In the best scene in Hand to God, which is currently playing at the BMO Theatre Centre, two puppets go at it like they’ve just discovered Sesame Street’scopy of the Kama Sutra. And Avenue Q, which the Arts Club first produced in 2013 and then remounted—so to speak—in 2014—also featured some wild, albeit genital-free, intercourse.

For the record: I am all for puppet sex. I support puppets’ rights to self-expression. And I like Hand to God, although I’m not nearly as blown away by it as others seem to be.

Playwright Robert Askins grew up in a well-off, religiously conservative town in Texas, where his mother led an after-school puppet ministry in the basement of a local church. (In terms of source material, some playwrights get all the breaks.)

In Hand to God, Askins introduces us to Jason, whose mother Margery…runs an after-school puppet ministry in the basement of a local church. And there’s a twist: Jason’s red-haired, google-eyed Muppet-style sidekick, Tyrone, is possessed—or at least that’s what everybody decides when Tyrone starts speaking directly from Jason’s id. There are two other members of Margery’s puppet troupe, which she calls the Christketeers: Timothy, who is hot for Margery—the kid characters are played by adults, so it’s hard to figure out how old they are supposed to be: maybe 15 or 16—and Jessica, who would rather be studying Balinese shadow puppetry but will take what she can get. Speaking to Jessica, Tyrone tattles on the guy whose hand is up his butt: “He thinks you’re hot.” And that’s just the beginning: when Tyrone tells Jessica that Jason touches himself when he thinks about her, she vacates the premises.

Like a whole lot of comedy, Hand to God is fueled by transgression, by unleashed appetites and emotions, except, in Hand to God, the leash snaps then continues to flail around like a live electrical wire. I don’t want to give too much away but blood is spilled and there is some biblically serious misbehaviour.

Playwright Askins’s dialogue is exuberantly potty-mouthed. When Jessica accuses Timothy of being a repressed homosexual, he replies, “See if you can taste the gay when I nut in your mouth”, to which she shoots back, “You’re so far back in the closet you’re in fucking Narnia.” And, when we get to it, the puppet sex is hilarious. Still, Act 1 got tedious for me: I tired of transgression for transgression’s sake. I recovered from Christianity a long time ago and I’m an ancient queen, so transgression? Sure. But I’d like some depth with that.

Hand to God aims at philosophical gravity, but hits a skid. In opening and closing monologues, which are both delivered by Tyrone, Askins deliberately positions Hand to God as a morality play about the repression and alienation engendered by the concept of evil. And the playwright delivers variations on the theme: the minister, Pastor Greg, hits on the recently widowed Margery, half-in and half-out of his role as counselor; and Margery, who perceives herself as a victim, also victimizes. But the play sets up a false dichotomy between good and evil, then rages at hypocrisy. Doesn’t everybody know by now that we all have to accommodate barnstorming impulses and emotions, including rage, horniness, and grief? Doesn’t everybody know that we are neither good nor bad? Go Buddhist, man. Choose the middle path.

Director Stephen Drover’s production of this eccentric work mostly succeeds.

Jennifer Lines offers herself up as a kind of human sacrifice as Margery. Reeling with despair, Margery is a tornado of fury, and bad judgment. Lines bares it all, even, unflinchingly, exposing Margery’s selfishness: “Can you come through for Mama?” this mother asks her son, to bend him to her will. “Can you be her rock? Her knight in shining armour.”

Mike Gill is stellar as Timothy: a smelly teenage combo of sexiness, misogyny, homophobia—and vulnerability. Gill hits all of his comedic marks. At the same time, his performance is impressively emotionally present.

Shekhar Paleja nails the nerdy Pastor Greg’s loneliness but, physically, he’s too small for the role. When Paleja’s Greg threatens to beat the shit out of Gill’s Timothy, we know that’s not going to happen. And Greg is the embodiment of adult male threat in this show: with a more physically imposing actor, Greg’s scenes with Margery would have a whole different spin.

Julie Leung displays admirable sang-froid as the diffident but decent Jessica—especially when it comes to the puppet humping.

And Oliver Castillo is remarkable as Jason/Tyrone. Tyrone really does take on a life of his own—most notably when he wakes Jason up in the middle of the night. (It’s so creepy.) And Castillo switches back and forth between the two characters seamlessly. Casting Castillo, whom we’ve seen around town before but not in such prominent role, was an excellent move on Drover’s part.

So, excellent performances and some excellent laughs, but I wanted more for my head and my heart.

HAND TO GOD By Robert Askins. Directed by Stephen Drover. An Arts Club production at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Thursday, June 1. Continues until June 25.

Get tickets at 604-687-1644 orgo to:


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