The Kitchen Theatre’s production of Hand to God would seem to be a very pure, if a little preachy, production if one were to just look at the set. Stuffed animals and toys are placed in bins next to a bookcase full of picture books, the theatre’s walls are covered in posters with messages about Jesus, and a colorful banner hangs above. But as soon as a skinny gray puppet pops up from behind a pulpit-like stage and starts cursing at the audience and ranting about the devil, it becomes clear that this is a very different kind of play.
After this introduction, the play opens to a church in Cypress, Texas where Margery (Erica Steinhagen), recently widowed, leads three teenagers in sewing puppets for a church puppet show. The teens, rebellious Timothy (Michael Patrick Trimm), snarky yet compassionate Jessica (Montana Lampert Hoover) and Margery’s bashful son Jason (Karl Gregory) constantly bicker. Timothy makes derisive comments about the club, but Jason appears to have a talent for puppet-making, which comes in handy when Pastor Greg (Aundre Seals) decides to move up the date of the puppet show. Jason names his puppet Tyrone, and uses the puppet to perform “Who’s on first” for Jessica, whom he has a crush on. However, the performance becomes twisted when Tyrone begins to speak on his own, insulting Jason in front of Jessica. Hurt and angry, Jason tears his puppet Tyrone in half and leaves him on the ground.
When Tyrone somehow comes back to life, appearing in Jason’s bed, he taunts Jason about his feelings for Jessica, his fights with Margery and Jason’s late father’s unhappy life. It’s a bizarre and hilarious scene, one of many in which Karl Gregory manages to perform simultaneously as an innocent teenage boy and a demonic puppet in a credible way. Many scenes involve Jason and Tyrone arguing, which requires Gregory to alternate between two very different characters every other sentence, and he pulls this off seamlessly. Several times, Tyrone grabs and turns Jason’s face with his tiny hands, and it becomes easy to forget that the two characters are played by the same actor.
The play is undoubtedly comedic and somehow makes the idea of a puppet possessed by the devil both terrifying and hysterical. When the second act begins, we see that someone, presumably Jason under Tyrone’s instruction, has crucified a stuffed giraffe Jesus on a plunger cross, and the ripped off head of a stuffed Maltese sits on a stool. A later sex scene between two puppets, although obviously uncomfortable, is a source of raucous laughter from the audience. Additionally, the cast of only five helps to rearrange the set between scenes, and though the lights are dimmed, the audience sees that they do so in character. When the actors playing Jessica and Timothy have to work together, they maintain their mutual dislike, wordlessly mocking each other.
The play is deemed a dark comedy, as it’s hilarious but also draws on serious issues. When Jason and Margery drive home, they have an emotional fight in the car about Jason’s desire to quit the puppet program and the pain he’s endured since his father’s death. It becomes clear that neither feels the other has provided sufficient support since the loss, and both feel lonely. Jason blames his mother for being unable to help his father, so much so that Margery begins to blame herself. Their complex relationship is explored throughout the play, and while they later begin to make amends, this process is realistically gradual.
All the characters seem to fit certain molds at the beginning, but grow throughout the course of the play. Pastor Greg seems a lot like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, always smiling, using fake swear words, praising God and innocently (though excessively) fawning over Margery. But when the situation calls for it, he displays strength and persistence in dealing with the demonic Tyrone. Margery in particular develops more depth and a wider range of emotions as the play goes on.
She first appears to be a stereotypical Southern churchgoer, but the emotions she wrestles with throughout the play in dealing with the loss of her husband and her lack of connection with her son make her a much more complex character. Steinhagen portrays Margery’s hilarious but disastrous sexual relationship with Timothy, her destruction of church property, and her rejection of Pastor Greg’s advances very convincingly and demonstrates that Margery is far from a one-dimensional character.
Even though Tyrone is, of course, very devilish, it’s satisfying to see him tell Timothy off time after time. It is never officially established whether Tyrone is truly the devil or just a part of Jason, but a scene where Tyrone screams that Margery killed his father suggests that Jason subconsciously uses Tyrone to say what he could never say. This suggests that Jason may be mentally ill, and while the play itself does not deal thoroughly enough with this possibility, Gregory portrays this very well.
While Hand to God will make most audience members both blush and laugh hysterically, it’s also very heartfelt. The Kitchen Theatre’s cast is very capable of tackling tough subjects while remaining humorous, and Gregory’s dual role is especially impressive. Full of both emotions and innuendos, Hand to God is a truly unique play.
Hand to God will be performed through September 25 at The Kitchen Theatre.
Emily Fournier is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com.