Hand to God Critiques Organized Religion Through Puppets

BY JOHANNA STAPLES-AGER staff writer

Berkeley Rep’s Hand to God, written by Robert Askins and directed by David Ivers, is a play about a demonic puppet that disrupts the normal goings-on of a southern church.

The puppet in question possesses a squeaky-clean teenage Texan Lutheran’s arm and infiltrates the fragile network of his church youth group. Hand to God, an apt title, is also a striking meditation on need, faith, and the instability of authority, as well as a raucously funny comedy.

At first glance, Hand to God may seem too high-concept and silly to function successfully as a play that features intelligent commentary and valuable insight. However, this assumption would be incorrect. The play effectively explores its  many themes through its out-there plot.

This melding of the absurd and the profound is accomplished in part by the unconventional role of the puppet, Tyrone: He does not simply divulge the main character Jason’s embarrassing secrets, but reveals Jason’s unspoken or unseen needs to his self-centered, tempestuous mother Margery. In addition, Tyron eventually helps Jason process his father’s death and become less of a doormat. Tyrone is not simply Jason’s cry for help, either: The puppet often speaks the dead-on truth about everything, even if profane, and helps reveal the fact that everyone, especially the authority figures of dangerously lonely Pastor Greg and impulsive Margery, is deeply flawed as well. The demonic puppet is, in fact, a pathway needed for the toxic church environment to move forward from its current stagnation. 

Hand to God is unusually perceptive for a play with such a wacky premise, as well as cringingly, achingly, darkly funny. The play is set in Cypress, Texas, and all the characters are heavily Christian and speak with Southern drawls, but that in no way distances us Berkeleyans from the awkwardly painful and painfully awkward scenes of Pastor Greg and teenage troublemaker Timothy hitting on Margery. Or the scenes of Jason confessing his crush on girl-next-door and fellow youth group member Jessica, and Tyrone convincing Jason that his mother doesn’t love him, both of which will surely hit home with any member of the audience no matter what type of culture or society they come from.

The characters are so spectacularly real that you become immersed in the unsettling, unsparing world of the play, making it hard to fully accept the brief catharsis of the ending. The humor is what makes this all bearable.

Askins has plotted a clear trajectory for each flawed character, and there is nothing to do but follow his directions — much as Jason is forced to devote his arm to the destructive aims of Tyrone.

This particular production features some absolutely spectacular acting. Michael Doherty, who plays Jason/Tyrone, manages to maintain two separate and conflicting personalities in a way that seems completely natural and relatable, even during such mental and physical gymnastics as the infamous puppet sex scene. Credit should also be given to Carolina Sanchez, who makes Jessica a beacon of hope for the sincerely messed-up church group. Sanchez also offers a fabulous performance as buxom puppet Jolene in said sex scene, and David Kelly, who plays a Pastor Greg so creepily lonely and identifiable you can’t help but imagine his real-life counterpart off pitying himself and hitting on attractive widows somewhere else.

Hand to God also features some innovative staging and propping, mirroring the descent of the storyline into chaos. Tyrone starts out looking kind of like Kermit the Frog, but he then sheds this wholesome exterior as he acquires bloodshot eyes and sharp teeth while he and the other characters become unhinged. The church basement where the “puppet practice” that creates Tyrone and Jolene for the purpose of acting out neutered Bible stories is held starts out painted with gaudy rainbows and hung with evangelical posters (“God is cool”), then slowly deteriorates due to Tyrone-related (and un-Tyrone-related) vandalism. 

I watched the play in its preview stages, meaning it still had some issues with character chemistry and staging, but Hand to God is an immersive pocket world of grief, humor, awkwardness, and humanity that I highly recommend. Be prepared to laugh, cringe, gasp in horror, and marvel at the havoc a demonic puppet can wreak on an toxically insular community that refuses to acknowledge its own needs.

Hand to God is currently playing at the Berkeley Rep. This is the play’s west coast premiere. Its run has been extended through March 24, so you can still get tickets. The play is approximately 80 minutes long with one 15 minute intermission.