Review: Hand to God is a joyful romp through the dark

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Virginia Wawner and Julian Sanchez star in the engaging and enjoyable Hand to God, at Lives Arts through May 6. Photo by Martyn Kyle Virginia Wawner and Julian Sanchez star in the engaging and enjoyable Hand to God, at Lives Arts through May 6. Photo by Martyn Kyle

In case you forgot why people still put on pants and leave the house in order to partake in live theater (as opposed to Netflix-ing their way to human-sized sinkholes on the couch), allow Live Arts’ production of Hand to God to spell it out for you.

Full-frontal nudity! Cursing in church! Legit cigarette smoking! Blood spray so realistic the front row gets splash guards—and all of this, thanks to hand puppets.

Yes, Hand to God is a wild ride. And holy cannoli, it is fun.

Lest you think such debauchery comes across as gratuitous, trust me when I say it doesn’t. This show is equal parts sincere and self-aware; its wicked humor streaks across a deep and loving heart. And thanks to powerful direction, supreme casting and clever stage, lighting and prop design, it’s one of the most enjoyable and engaging shows I’ve seen in a very long time.

And okay, maybe it’s a little gratuitous—but I’m a nerd who hates excess violence and jump-scare movies, and I absolutely loved it.

Set in a church basement in sleepy Cypress, Texas, Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated comedy follows the rapid devolution of a teenage puppet club, spearheaded by Margery, a recent widow whose idle hands (and misfit son Jason) need some work to do.

Gifted space and materials by Pastor Greg, who carries a not-so-secret torch for his congregant-in-mourning (and whose profession of passion made me laugh out loud), Margery attempts to corral three local teens into rehearsals of a puppet performance for the church.

There’s Timmy, the James Dean-inspired bully with an alcoholic mother and a hidden crush. There’s Jessica, the girl-next-door who bravely (and hilariously) takes matters into her own hands when the situation demands it. There’s Jason, whose underwhelming mustache, overlarge button-down and stammering peacemaker attitude suppress myriad frustrations, including a desire for Jessica, anger at Timmy, obedience to his mother and grief about his dead father.

And then there’s Tyrone, a mop-haired puppet fixed on Jason’s right arm, who takes on a life of his own. Acting as Jason’s expletive-spitting id and/or supernatural conduit, Tyrone eventually reveals himself as the devil incarnate (by possession or proxy, we’re still not sure). Spilling “hidden knowledge” as light bulbs flicker overhead, Tyrone unveils the darkness each character hides, and instigates chaos in their lives. As he insists, in soliloquy and furious lecture, the devil is merely an idea, a scapegoat, a label slapped on natural human impulses—the ones we fear or fail to understand.

In this age of social condemnation, it’s a theme that will hit home for most people. For Cristan Keighley, the director of Live Arts’ production, it hits even closer.

Hand to God is intensely and eerily personal to me,” he writes in the director’s note in the show’s Playbill. “The Bible used on opening night is my own, from my teen years, largely spent in a church that was a 20-minute drive from the playwright’s own.”

Keighley shares a glimpse of the pain inflicted by his experience at that church, including pointed condemnation by a pastor distinctly lacking moral high ground. This show presents the moral high ground as, itself, the problem—therefore lampooning what many hold sacred and rejecting tribal alliances that smother individuality and our habit of demonizing desire and heartfelt emotion—so much of that which makes us human. Because, as the director writes, “This play is about love, as most things are.”

That love is subtle, a current beneath the madness, yet rendered masterfully, and I suspect Keighley’s talent and heart are the reasons for it.

As Timmy, Evan Post is brooding and overeager, and you can’t help feeling sorry for him, no matter what he says Jessica smells like. Gwyneth Sholar brings warmth and lightness to Jessica, infusing the character with an echo of laughter that gives audience members permission to not take this whole thing so seriously. James Sanford is pitch-perfect as Pastor Greg, offering a painful blend of desperation, good intentions and intimate creepiness. As Margery, Virginia Wawner brings us along as she turns from pearls and polished hairdos to sadomasochistic underbelly. When she screams with the authentic fury of a strung-out, frustrated mom, you believe her.

One word about Julian Sanchez, the actor who Jekyll-and-Hydes as Jason and Tyrone: wow.

His performance literally made my jaw drop. His portrayal of Tyrone was so captivating, I consistently forgot the puppet/devil was being animated by the hand and voice box next to him.

Word on the street is it took prop master Kerry Moran 174 hours to create the puppets used in the show, so I have to give them their due, because they look great, they go through the wringer and Tyrone feels like a legitimate member of the cast.

All in all, Live Arts’ production of Hand to God is fun and crazy, and really well done. So put on your pants, go out to the theater and sit there side-by-side in the dark—for the glory of it.

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