San Diego Theater Review: HAND TO GOD (San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum Stage)

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by Milo Shapiro on October 30, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


What could go wrong when a newly widowed mom leads three teens in a wholesome, Lutheran, extra-curricular church class tasked with creating a Christian puppet show? Thankfully for us, plenty, in this gripping, darkly-comic drama by Robert Askins which premiered off-Broadway in 2011.

Trying to fill her empty life with something of value, Margery (Deanna Driscoll) agrees to run the class, but struggles to keep decorum in the church basement classroom. One of her students, good-girl Jessica (Christina Flynn), is amiable enough but often loses her cool around the teen punk and bitter ne’er-do-well Timothy (Garrett Marshall), who constantly brings out the worst in everyone. Timothy has no desire to do puppetry but has his own motives for attending.

More significantly, from the outset, we can see something is definitely troubling Margery’s son, Jason (Caleb Foote). It isn’t until we see Jason alone with his puppet that we come to understand why: Tyrone, a bug-eyed, X-rated hand puppet with teeth, has taken over the arm and soul of this troubled teen. No friendly companion, Tyrone talks back to Jason and pushes every button in his fragile, unconfident world. The problem escalates when, to Jason’s powerless horror, Tyrone begins interaction with other people independently. The question we’re mesmerized by is, where does Jason end and Tyrone begin?

Foote makes no attempt at ventriloquism, which makes sense since he’s playing a teen who just started puppetry, but that steals nothing from relishing the fiery pace of Tyrone and Jason’s arguing, or from absorbing Tyrone as a unique, enthralling character. With an exhausting level of energy, Foote’s charged portrayal of Jason’s anguish is palpable, as the teen is torn between his conscience and his doubts: Could this childish-looking personification of evil be right sometimes? In 100 minutes, the altercations between puppet and teen are some of the most spellbinding parts of the evening.

Except for more sensitive souls, most theatergoers should be able to tolerate that this very dark comedy is unquestionably blasphemous, cruel, sexually-charged, and downright creepy at times. It is very witty and the performances are over-the-top committed. Driscoll’s at-wits-end portrayal of Margery yields great laughter, rivaled only by Marshall’s gleeful rendition of Timothy’s edgy obnoxiousness hiding his desperate craving for love.

The play is not so much a common horror story about a monstrous puppet á la Chucky as it is a twisted exposé of what lurks just beneath the veneer of a society that is barely holding itself together. Religion takes a hefty bashing (the motives of Jason Heil as Pastor Greg are always somewhat questionable) but Askins never lets the Church take the full blame; it is our flawed selves that give religion its power to do as much harm as good.

photos by Daren Scott

Hand to God
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza
ends on November 12, 2017
for tickets, call 619.544.1000 or visit SD Rep

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