Not everything made big is made better. And not everything on a large Broadway stage is improved by a cavernous space. Sometimes the best gifts are in tiny boxes.
So it is with Studio Theater’s Hand To God, an immersive re-imagining of the Broadway show about a puppet ministry in the basement of a Lutheran church. The dark comedy of tensions and thwarted desires in the small Mount Logan Lutheran Church of Cypress, Texas is perfectly realized here, and frankly, it is simply not to be missed.
Each and every detail of Hand To God is attended to with such care and obvious delight. From the spot-on acting, to the thoughtful directing, to the well conceived costumes and dollhouse-like set, there isn’t a single misstep. And that set- zowie, my dears. Does it ever set the tone for the evening!
Set Designer Daniel Conway has clearly enjoyed building this lifelike little world. Located on the upper floor of the large multiuse Studio Theatre, you would swear you have just entered a below ground basement. Cinderblock walls, ugly checkerboard floor tiles, one of those rollup doors to a kitchen nook- it’s all there, plus cheesy Jesus posters and bookcases full of Parcheesi and other wholesome toys and games.
As soon as you walk in, you are escorted to one of many gingham draped tables, loaded with simple materials to make a sock puppet. You are placed not in front of the stage to watch a show, you are now part and parcel with it, and seated with folks who, moments before, were strangers to you. It’s a wry allusion to that uncomfortable inclusiveness that is at the heart of much of organized religion.
With no buildup at all, (this, for me, was one of its charms) the characters rocket into the business of exposing the anxieties of communing with a God who may or may not be there with them in that basement. Wholesome it sure isn’t – for this puppet show masks some real dysfunction not only in the characters but in the very nature of man’s relationship with God. It’s a heady subject to tackle, even with sock puppets as liaisons between humanity and deities. For if God isn’t there, has the Devil come to take his place?
As Jason and his alter ego puppet Tyrone, actor Liam Forde bears the heavy burden of shuttling between reality and the voices, not in his head but in his hand. Tyrone gets more and more demonic, acquiring scars, teeth and mismatched eyes, and Forde slowly builds up a suitably possessed mien. Director Joanie Shultz wisely avoids what could be shtick with this tricky combination, and a more nuanced portrait of an introverted teenager in need comes through.
Hand to God
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
Susan Rome, as Tyrone’s recently widowed mother Margery, veers between devotion to her son and trying to please a community that asks too much of her. Her revulsion of Pastor Greg is both comic and desperate: she should want this God-fearing, righteous man, but can’t quite bring herself to. Tim Getman as Pastor Greg, gives a well shaded portrayal; in lesser hands, this character could easily become a one-dimensional stereotype of a Texas pastor, but Getman manages to make him almost noble. Ryan McBride as Timothy and Caitlin Collins as Jessica give well nuanced portrayals of the other teenaged members of the Christcateers puppet ministry; McBride in particular has grand comic flair.
This wildly inventive show isn’t for everyone- it most emphatically is not for children, for example. And a good many folks with firmly entrenched views on family values might find it downright offensive. But despite its foul language and comedic scenes, at its heart, Hand To God asks some deep questions: if there’s no God to save us, is it possible for us to save ourselves?
Given the limited number of seats in Stage 4, best to book tickets without delay. This show has a short run and ends August 7th.
Hand to God by Robert Askins . Director: Joanie Schultz . Cast: Jason/Tyurone: Liam Forde; Margery: Susan Rome; Jessica: Caitlin Collins; Timothy: Ryan McBride; Pastor Greg: Tim Getman . Costume & Puppet Designer: Chelsea M. Warren . Scenic Design: Daniel Conway . Lighting Design: Keith Parham . Sound Design: Matthew Nielsen . Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.