On Stage: Hand to God

Head to Studio Theatre for a Tony-nominated dark comedy featuring demonic puppets. 

Liam Forde in Hand to God at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Tina Revazi)

Liam Forde in Hand to God at Studio Theatre (Photo by Tina Revazi)

If you have ever considered puppets to have annoying, frightening personas, your worst suspicions will be confirmed in meeting Tyrone, the hand puppet star of “Hand to God” playing in Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 as part of Studio X, the fourth floor black box where more unorthodox productions are staged.

This is not a puppet show for children. It is a dark comedy in which a hand puppet on the arm of a troubled teenage boy is a demonic creature with the kind of antics and blasphemous language that would embarrass a sailor.

Daniel Conway has clearly designed the set of “Hand to God” that turned Studio X into a familiar looking church activities basement, complete with painted cement block walls and religious banners of Jesus and other Christian symbols. The audience sits at cafeteria tables and the performance takes place throughout the room and on two stages at either end. There are even shelves with toys and games to keep children amused. And there is also a refreshments window section for the audience to buy drinks. It adds to the aura of congregational conviviality.

That setting soon loses its familiarity when the troubled teenager, Jason (Liam Forde) and Tyrone, his profane hand puppet, come onto the scene. Costume and puppet designer Chelsea M. Warren must truly hate puppets because her brilliant creation, that has the benign look of a harmless puppet, takes on a chilling life of its own under the masterful control and voice of Forde who plays himself and Tyrone.

Tim Getman and Susan Rome in Hand to God at Studio Theatre (Photo by Amy Horan)

Tim Getman and Susan Rome in Hand to God at Studio Theatre (Photo by Amy Horan)

It says something about how adept Forde is that Jason’s arguments with Tyrone seem bizarrely real, even though Tyrone is a manifestation of the troubled teenager.

Created by playwright Robert Askins, “Hand to God” had a successful Broadway run and received five Tony nominations, and an Olivier nomination during its run in London, a surprising development for a play that opened off Broadway.

Under Joanie Schultz’s direction, “Hands to God” moves deftly through an almost normal first act, especially in lieu of what is coming after intermission. With clever use of iridescant paints and black lighting of lighting designer Keith Parham, the church basement becomes a demonic setting with the walls covered with blasphemous satanic symbols and obscene graffiti in the second act.

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Liam Forde in Hand to God at Studio Theatre (Photo by Amy Horan)

The smart cast includes Susan Rome as Margery, Jason’s sexually repressed mother, who is an activities volunteer at the Mount Logan Lutheran Church of Cypress, Tex. and is fighting off the advances of a sexually frustrated Pastor Greg, Tim Getman, who represents any mushy minister anyone has ever met. Margery, however, has lustful feelings for the years younger Timothy (played by Ryan McBride) who cynically has comparable feelings about her. To complete this mix of complicated energies is Jessica (Caitlin Collins) who is fighting for Timothy’s attention.

Even with such a competent cast, the star of “Hand to God” is the cynical, but colorfully evil Tyrone, a sock puppet who is in complete control of the boy at the other end of his arm. “Hand to God” is a provocative romp, but with an easy restructuring it could have become an experience in horror that could have sent theatergoers hurrying home to inventory any puppets their children may have.

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