Robert Askins's Hand to God lives up to its billing. Produced in over 40 theaters across the country, it's finally here in director Matt Pfeiffer's fast and funny Philadelphia Theatre Company production.
Ads warn of "X-plicit language" and "X-treme content," labeling the whole thing "X-rated." Aside from its X-cruciating overuse of "X," this may all be true for many theatergoers, although the vocabulary Askins employs would fit comfortably into an episode of Girls. It's just that Askins's naughty words are spoken by high-school students, a middle-aged widow, and a pastor, and also near a church. Someone's bound to be scandalized.
I didn't see anyone offended by the play, however, and I attended the Sunday (as in Palm Sunday) matinee. Perhaps all that "X" goes over easy because much of it arrives via sock puppets. Aubie Merrylees plays Jason, who finds a voice through his puppet alter ego Tyrone, who refuses to leave Jason's hand.
Jason's one of three "Christketeers," teens recruited by Jason's mother Margery (Grace Gonglewski) to create puppets and devise a show for a Cypress, Texas, Lutheran church congregation. Shy Jessica (Alex Keiper) joins because she loves Jason; punk Timothy (Matteo J. Scammell) participates because he has the hots for Margery. Pastor Greg (William Zielinski) allows the project because he feels much the same for Margery, though he phrases it differently: to him, she's "a wounded thing who needs to be cared for." But does she see herself that way?
None of them can produce anything to fit their "Praise The Lord" puppet theater. After Jason, in a fit of teenage frustration, rips Tyrone in half, the puppet reanimates with a red scar down his yellow sock face, determined to cause mayhem.
I howled with laughter throughout, especially once Tyrone rampaged and all those naughty secret desires were revealed. In addition, Brian Sidney Bembridge's sweet church-basement classroom set transforms into a bloody tribute to Satan, who bears a disturbing resemblance to our current president.
As blasphemous as the characters' words and actions might seem, Tyrone's X-cesses clearly come from Jason's repressed feelings. Margery and Pastor Greg can't break through to him, but can Jessica, with the help of her big-breasted sock puppet? Their discussion about the complexities of teenage life -- while their puppets hump each other silly at the ends of the kids' arms -- is beyond hilarious. Keiper and Merrylees are frequently cast as teens and they’re great here, honestly revealing the fear, pain, and longing peculiar to our teenage years. But they're also terrific at voicing and acting their puppets' personalities. Robert Smythe designed the puppets and their movement, and his expertise and imagination show.
Everything about this production sparkles, from outrageous yet confident performances to the pre- and post-Tyrone set, Thom Weaver's vibrant lighting, Alison Roberts's costumes, Daniel Perelstein's slyly cheerful compositions, and J. Alex Cordaro's funny fight, sex, and fighting-during-sex choreography.
Hand to God lacks, except in the monologues from Tyrone that open and close the play, any serious thought about religion. Not that it's required, but the promise of Tyrone's opening tirade -- starting with the Biblical-sounding "In the beginning" leading into a rant about how man's natural urges to "shit, fuck, and stare off into the distance" were compromised by the concept of shame -- never gets fulfilled. Perhaps Askins wisely deduced that too much serious religious questioning would overpower his play's outrageous comedy, and he's probably right -- but I was ready for more. Blessed are the puppets, because they can say what humans can't or won't.