by Richard Dodds
The question may be the same, but the deliveries couldn't be more different. It's an earnest pastor versus a potty-mouthed puppet challenging the notion that hell is a necessary evil to hold the faithful in check. While playwright Lucas Hnath asks this question in the form of a thoughtful theological debate in The Christians now at San Francisco Playhouse, Robert Askins sends streams of shockwaves through the audience as a satanic sock puppet seems to take control of a meek member of a church's youth group in Hand to God .
If the sight of consensual anal sex between puppets is a transgression too far, then Berkeley Rep's current production may not be your chalice of wine. Otherwise, get ready for a few gasps and a shitload of laughs. That's not an entirely gratuitous scatological invocation, for the play is prefaced with a puppet who, in providing a condensed history of civilization, says, "Once when we had to shit, you just let it drop. That was a golden age." And now, let the show begin.
The scene is a church rec room, plastered with cheery Jesus-loves-us posters, where a desultory puppet club convenes in increasingly disturbing circumstances. The hyper-cheery Margery, a recent widow, leads the group made up of her painfully shy son, a wary teenage girl, and the resident rebel without a cause. A pasty-faced pastor occasionally pops in to check on the group, but his real interest is scooping up the now-single Margery for himself.
Tic-laden Jason, still angry over his father's death, finds he can confidently communicate through his hand puppet Tyrone. He seems to seldom take it off, even if it puts many activities off-limits. "You take him in the pool," he says, "and there goes your Saturday night." He uses Tyrone to woo Jessica, who's vaguely invested in the group. "I'm really more into Balinese shadow puppetry," she says, "but I,ll take what I can get." He impresses her with a confidently delivered version of the "Who's on first" comedy routine between himself and Tyrone before the puppet begins making increasingly inappropriate comments. Jason is horrified by and powerless to stop this devil attached to his hand.
Matters disintegrate into a torrent of crises, fueled directly or indirectly by Tyrone, and most all of them funny on any array of levels. It's hard to imagine that director David Ivers' production isn't an equal to the 2015 Broadway presentation, with performances, tone, and timing all finely tuned. The heart and soul of this production are provided by Michael Doherty as alter egos Jason and Tyrone, with the puppet on his hand taking on uncanny life of its own while the meek Jason vainly tries to stop his creation from completely taking over his life.
The other characters are foils to Tyrone's increasing hostility, but they also have dramas taking place in worlds apart. Laura Odeh seems to be preternaturally perky as Jason's mom, Margery, but she explodes in a scene of dizzying abandon all the more effective for her convincing performance as a happy Christian soldier. Michael McIntire is a delight as wannabe bad boy Timothy, who indeed can be bad but mostly to cover up his insecurities. Caroline Sanchez provides a sense of stability as the levelheaded Jessica, but even she shocks us with the unconventional puppet therapy she provides to keep Tyrone at bay. David Kelly plays Pastor Paul as a familiar milquetoast type, but still pulls in the laughs.
What looks at first like a simple set imaginatively evolves into more than that in Jo Winiarski's design, and in a show like this it would be unconscionable not to offer praise to puppet designer Amanda Villalobos. Puppets are hardly kids' play in Hand to God, which will likely have you on your feet at the end – if you haven't fled the theater by that point.
Hand to God will run at Berkeley Rep through March 19. Tickets are $29-$97. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org.