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Director, lead actor talk irreverence, comedic profundity of ‘Hand to God’

“Avenue Q” meets “The Book of Mormon” and “Hamlet”

with a puppet."

After wreaking havoc on and Off-Broadway, the unassuming-looking, orange-haired puppet Tyrone has arrived in Berkeley to speak his truth, however offensive it may be. Like other orange-hued public figures, Tyrone has no filter, plenty to say and a dangerous platform.

Robert Askins’ explosive, possessed puppet play “Hand to God” has been described in turn as “Sesame Street” meets “The Exorcist,” “Avenue Q” meets “The Book of Mormon” and “Hamlet” with a puppet. It was also enthusiastically received, garnering an Obie award for Best New Play and five Tony nominations. The play is about a sweet but troubled Texan teenager named Jason whose mother has forced him to participate in a Christian puppet ministry and whose puppet Tyrone takes on a demonic life of his own.

When Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, first approached director David Ivers about working on a new play together (Ivers directed “One Man, Two Guvnors” at Berkeley Rep in 2015), Ivers was too busy, and he filed the play Taccone had sent him away in the basement. It didn’t take long, however, for curiosity to get the better of him.

“I went down to my basement at home and read it in an hour and a half, and it was one of those plays where I found myself with my jaw on the floor and laughing out loud,” Ivers said.

It’s a play that elicits that kind of gut-punch love from readers and viewers. The immediate appeal is the joke of the dirty muppet, the shock of a toy that could be Elmo’s cousin spewing obscenities at a church youth group. But “Hand to God” wouldn’t work if it were a string of curses without a strong emotional glue.

Michael Doherty, who plays Jason, had a similarly enthusiastic reaction to the play when Ivers sent him a script and asked him to play Jason. “It’s tremendously funny and jarring and destroys all of these social constructs,” said Doherty. “But what really surprised me when I first read it was the heart of the piece and how it’s about these damaged people that are kind of lost in their lives and need to come together to move forward.”

Under its raucous veneer, “Hand to God” is, at its core, a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to these messed-up, pissed-off, pent-up people. Jason’s mother Margery mourns the loss of her husband and keeps herself occupied by trying to get a trio of teenagers to care about a Christian puppet show. Timothy, another of the youth group, is a horny, angry teenager, reluctantly dropped off there while his mom attends AA meetings. Then there’s Jason himself, whose grief and angst might just be fueling Tyrone’s satanic outbursts. It’s never quite clear whether Tyrone is a vessel of the devil or Jason’s adolescent id run wild.

That balance between the vulgar and the earnest is a delicate one, but Ivers credits it all to Robert Askins’ writing rather than any directorial flourish of his own. “It’s really, how do you get out of the way of the story,” said Ivers. He calls the play “really sound, really visceral, really well made” and insists the trick is not in reinvention but in investing the audience in this cast of characters and letting the work speak for itself. As Ivers observed: “None of this works if you don’t care about this kid.”

None of that is to say that “Hand to God” isn’t still great, dirty fun. Berkeley Rep is offering $20 tickets to students with the idea that the irreverent blasphemy will appeal to college kids who like brevity, cheap amusements, anti-establishment humor — think “Deadpool” or the nonconformity of “Fight Club” without its overserious nihilism. It’s a play for anyone who remembers what it was to be an angsty teen with bad ideas.

“If I was going to see this play,” Ivers says, “I’d want to get together a group of like, 10 to 15 people and be like, ‘We’re going to eat, get a couple of drinks and see this play.’ ” It’s a show best pre-gamed with a raucous crew of college friends — best approached more like a basement improv show than a night at the theatre.

“It’s like riding a roller coaster,” he said. Some tips: Do have fun, may not be suitable for people with low tolerance for puppet sex.

“Hand to God” opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre Friday, Feb. 10, and runs until Sunday, March 19.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at Tweet her at @miyasinger.

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