Raise your hand and swear on the Bible not to tell. Jesus Christ; not that way! What the (expletive deleted)! Let’s start again. Swear that you won’t tell anyone about the hilarious scene veering towards the conclusion of Robert Askins’ Hand to God presented by SNAP Productions.
Wildness proliferates as an alter ego writhes like a snake within the confines of a church. As if possessed by evil, it spews a host of blasphemy emerging from the confused soul of a once-innocent young man. Comic moments keep on bursting at the seams while proliferating profanity neither provokes laughter nor surprise. Both come with the territory.
Askins’ script vividly lives and breathes, thanks to outstanding direction by Roxanne Wach and a remarkable five-person cast.
And yet the framework has solid foundations. In a small Texas town, Margery, a recently widowed woman, comes up with a church puppet show as a kind of therapy. Her introverted son Jason, who could use some therapy himself, really gets into his cloth character’s role. His puppet, Tyrone, becomes a vicious creature, as if Jason can’t stop himself. Witness how Jason becomes so possessed by Tyrone that Pastor Greg suggests that an exorcism might be worth a try. Askins makes it clear that all is not well at home between mother and son and that Jason’s inner demon could spring from family dysfunction. And that, maybe, Margery’s center is not all that stable either.
Meanwhile, potential performer, likewise young Timothy would rather have his hands go in non-puppet directions, Margery’s limbs and the demesnes that there adjacent lie. And yet, a telling moment shows that perhaps Timothy still needs a mom to cuddle him. And, amid the seething scenes, young Jessica develops her own alternative fantasy creature, while it has been shown from the get-go that she is no shrinking violet. Askins has also given Pastor Greg some very good dialogue about loneliness.
Doesn’t sound funny does it? Nonetheless, the performing, shaped by Wach, makes it so. Watch what happens when formerly repressed Margery and horny Timothy can’t control themselves any longer. Or what surfaces when Tyrone loses control.
The cast plays it all as if their characters are just a few inches south of being real, never going too far, with the kind of naturalness which makes comedy work best. Jon Roberson’s versatility stands out as innocent and vulnerable Jason, evoking sympathy and understanding so much so that Tyrone seems another person entirely, underscored by remarkable puppetry. These encounters and exchanges astonish. At one point, you might even think that Tyrone lying on the floor, no longer animated by Jason’s hand, will spring up any moment on its own. As Margery, MaryBeth Adams remains dynamically alive as a woman so on the edge that she might fall off. And Tyler Swain’s Timothy has it all together as swaggering teen who still hasn’t lost the insecurities of adolescence.
The clever puppets, designed by Wach and her husband Dan, are rather elemental constructions, principally animated by hands within, with simple rods to move the hands. And yet, everything she, Roberson and Roni Shelley Perez as Jessica get from them comes across as never simple and always skillful.
Dan Wach’s set design and Rhonda Hall’s props come up with clever inventions, e.g. décor with a poster which reads “Hang in there, baby. Jesus did.” Or when Tyrone has made a church room his nasty lair, naked Barbie dolls hang upside-down on the walls. Note too, the Christ bobblehead. And the ever-changing walls also show an imaginative use of the small playing space.
FYI: Askins is from Texas and this play had a good Broadway run ending early this year. Another recent play Permission was off-Broadway last year. He’s had numerous other off-Broadway productions including Anger and the Doughnut, I’d Leave You But We Have Reservations and Love Song of an Albanian Sous Chef. Askins also regularly has been producing a site-specific brunch-time serial All the Little Fishes in a New York Greek restaurant. http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsA/askins-robert.html
Apparently this Off-Broadway Alliance Award-winning, multi-Tony-nominated comedy has shocked and unsettled audiences. That might happen here with those less familiar with SNAP’s kind of theatre. But, for people who know what to expect, witness how well SNAP carries it off
Hand To God runs through Dec.11, SNAP Productions, 3225 California Street Thurs-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. Sun. Dec. 11: 2 p.m. Tickets: $12-$20. http://www.snapproductions.com/