Curious Theatre Company’s Hand to God is loud, herky-jerky, foul-mouthed and funny enough to have you choking with laughter. That’s if a certain malevolent sock puppet hasn’t decided to leap into the audience and choke off your breath altogether. The puppet is Tyrone, and he lives — I use the term advisedly — on the left arm of a sweet, shy teenage boy named Jason. Jason and his recently bereaved mother, Margery, are having a difficult time, both financially and emotionally. She’s leaning on him hard for support when he can barely support his own spirits. And, of course, he’s going through all the usual teenage sexual turmoil and confusion.
The action takes place in a church in Cypress, Texas, where Margery has taken a job running a puppetry workshop for teens. I swear I didn’t know until seeing Hand to God that puppetry is an essential part of worship in many places these days. There are puppet ministries, and churches develop puppet skits designed to “share God’s word.” Jason sits disconsolately in the church basement with nerdy Jessica, who prefers Balinese shadow puppetry, and sullen, disruptive Timothy, dumped in the workshop while his mother attends her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting upstairs. The dynamics are depressing. The only completed puppet on the scene is Jason’s innocent-looking, fuzzy Tyrone. Nonetheless, Pastor Greg has decided that the church’s first puppet demonstration will occur the following Sunday, and poor Margery is panicked. Even more so when she realizes that the pastor’s interest in her, despite the unctuous tone of his pronouncements, isn’t strictly platonic.
A little later, Jason and Jessica are outside on the swings. He’s manipulating Tyrone, doing a routine, trying to impress the girl. She’s smiling. And then Tyrone swings into action, diving at Jessica’s face and hissing scatological insults. From here on out, “The devil’s on the loose,” as Creedence Clearwater Revival once sang: “Thought I heard a rumblin’/Calling to my name/Two hundred million guns are loaded/Satan cries, ‘Take aim.’”
Tyrone’s either Satan himself or represents the evil impulses all of us have but tend to control. Probably both. Sometimes it feels as if playwright Robert Askins’s id had taken him over, too. The plot goes rolling somewhat logically along until— whoops! — suddenly crazy things are happening everywhere, the church has been defiled, and everyone’s id is having a party, even without Tyrone’s help. Pastor Greg isn’t the only one who wants Margery. So does Tim, who, you’ll remember, is a teenager. And while at first Margery rebuffs him, as decency and morality require, eventually...well, we won’t tell you just how weird things get between them. The production features unfettered lust, Jason’s frantic fight with his own puppet-occupied hand, loud rock (terrific sound design by Jason Ducat), satanic manifestations like smoke and flickering lights and — just incidentally — rutting puppets. You thought the puppet sex in Avenue Q was daring? You have no idea how daring puppet sex can be.
Hand to God mocks blind religiosity, but it doesn’t go as deep into the nature of good and evil as you’d expect. In a closing monologue, Satan/Tyrone talks about how humankind once purged itself by sacrificing animals and eventually moved on to sacrifice the sweetest human being who ever existed — but after this promising beginning, the speech gets a bit garbled.
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Director Dee Covington has brought the play to fine and exhilarating life. John Hauser does brilliantly in the schizophrenic role of Jason, fully inhabiting both the teen’s innocence and Tyrone’s savagery, skillfully manipulating the intransigent puppet. Sometimes I wished Tara Falk’s Margery had begun in a more low-key and realistic vein before descending into fits of pure insanity, but she does those fits so damn well. Michael McNeill makes Pastor Greg a solid, kindly but somehow insinuating teddy bear; John Jurcheck enjoyably embodies Timothy’s strutting macho as well as his humiliation when he’s brought humiliatingly low; Jenna Moll Reyes hides her natural charm beneath Jessica’s nerdy exterior until those moments when it just can’t help peeping out. The timing throughout is impeccable, and the physical action, staged by Jenn Zukowski, is wild and full-out.
The entire evening has the pulse-quickening, adrenaline-pumping effect of a first-rate rock concert, but it gives you quite a bit more to chew on later.
Hand to God, presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 17, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.