“HAND TO GOD” IS AN EDGY FUN, BLOODY DRAMA THAT ALSO EXPLORES HATE, LUST, VIOLENCE AND FEAR, THIS PUPPET WILL MAKE YOU THINK
I first met Tyrone in Berkeley earlier this theatre season, and he was as nasty and foul mouthed as any of the South Park Kids. I caught up with him in San Jose over the weekend and he is in perfect form charming San Jose audiences. The more I see the naughty puppet the more I like him. The South Bay regional premiere of HAND TO GOD a dark comedy, written by Robert Askins and directed by San Jose Stage founder and artistic director Randall King, is now on stage through October 15th. HAND was originally produced Off-Broadway in 2011 and 2014 and made a Broadway debut in 2015, receiving five Tony Award nominations, including for Best New Play. Askins called his play "an irreverent puppet comedy - about a possessed Christian-ministry puppet," the play takes its title from a Southern expression about honesty.
Director King cast a tight talented cast of five of the Bay Area's best actors and says “Launching the season, Hand To God savagely explores the idea that the theological foundations of “good and bad”,”right and wrong”, “devil or angel” may diminish our collective sense of accountability. This production is a comedic exploration of that struggle.”
In the same smoke from the outrageous puppets from Avenue Q, this dark comedy centers on a Sunday school classroom in a small Texas town church. Church volunteer Margery played by the impressive Alison Ewing, is a widow whose husband has passed away and attends a group at the local church. Her Pastor Greg, has asked her to run a teen club called "The Christkateers." The teenage members of the club are her son Jason played by the terrific David Colston Corris, and the girl he has a crush on; Jessica is played by the finesse Lizzie O’Hara. Timothy the bad boy bully is played by the sharp Sean Okuniewicz.
Margery’s Christian Puppet club is well a meaning attempt to teach “faith and morality.” Jason her son, as it turns out she reaches him all too well, since sweet Jason has apparently bonded with his puppet, Tyrone, in a dangerous, yet important way. Tyrone, an alter ego, which provides an outlet for the teens inner rage. The word of Tyrone has taken over Jason’s weak teen personality and is using him to bully everyone in sight, including Pastor Greg played by local favorite Keith Pinto.
As Tyrone says in his opening speech, speaking from a puppet stage in the classroom: “The same motherfucker who invented the group kill and team virtue that ballsy piece of pig shit topped all his previous work and invented the devil.” More than just a devilish monster, Tyrone is the embodiment of the rage and grief of Jason a fatherless teenage boy. HAND TO GOD is also the portrait of a youth driven to the edge of sanity, in a sort of nervous breakdown. Tyrone voices truths that Jason, his creator, is too afraid to speak. A Cyrano de Bergerac of madness Corris is exceptional as he transforms between Tyrone and a broken teenager. Corris’ brilliantly creates the illusion that Jason and Tyrone are two halves of one soul, trying to balance a need for control with a need to strike out. The fight scenes with most all the boys and even mom are choreographed by the full throttle fight coach Will Springhorn Jr, and when the blood starts splashing this dark comedy is now full force.
The infectious supporting cast under the keen and focused direction of King, is excellent. Ewing is correctly pathetic as Margery, the grief stricken mother who, like Jason, needs to go through an emotional breakdown, which takes on a ride of sexual promiscuity, drinking and rejection of the affection shown to her by Pastor Greg, Pinto is terrific as the bible base everyman in this play and can be a lecherous as Tyrone.
Lizzie O’Hara clearly portrays another lost soul who stands up for Jason and tries to help her friend. The duo portrays a sex scene using puppets as subtext for their own desires which is disturbingly funny, while creating a double XX version of the puppet sex we saw in Avenue Q. O’ Hara is both charming and supurb as Jessica. Her scenes with Jason soften some of the stress we see in Corris’ performance.
The tall aspiring Sean Okuniewicz was born to play the smarmy sexbully Timothy who swaggers across the stage in pursuit of seducing Margery, while bulling Jason. Okuniewicz who is a local favorite on Bay Area musical stages makes a dramatic break in a stage play that shows off his professional acting talent. Okuniewicz and Ewing sexual timing and on stage shenanigans is over the top but the tension is a great edge in the story.
All photos credited to Dave Lepori
Keith Pinto another local musical theatre favorite in Bay Area productions makes a wonderfully grounded Pastor Greg making him the calm center at the eye of the storm. His love interest in Margery is achingly sad. Pinto brings a lonely need as all of these characters are fighting urges that get released because of unresolved pressure. For Timothy it is his mother's alcoholism and his non-involvement in his life. For Pastor Greg it is his loneliness and his unchristian lust for Margery. Moments of violence and puppet horror does include blood spatters and costume designer April Bonasera brings that home. Bonasera keeps the teens in appropriate tones, Jessica’s goth like anger, Jason in his classic shorts and teen striped T shirt you would see on a Christian guy, but Timothy was more rugged stomping the room in boots and black vest look. Mom and Pastor had a pastel look and clean small town Texas style.
If HAND TO GOD loses you, it pulls you back in, with its clever design by the appealing craft team. Steve Schoenbeck's pounding sound design with its hard rock undertones and devil satan mix becomes the sixth character in this play. The sound transitions are perfectly connected to Michael Patumbo’s lighting design that needs to be chilling and still keep the Jesus light on. Patumbo’s car scene with son and mom is effective in pools of light, as he also created the layered set design. Every sound cue immerses you in the story, making you feel as if you're within Jason's world as he wrestles with whether he is going to overcome his worst fears or surrender to the devil that clings to his arm. Stephanie Whingham's props brings a cutesy religious propaganda covering the basements walls including "Love Jesus" posters. Wingham's puppet stage, children size chairs and random hand puppets are all entertaining. I am not sure she gets the credit for Tyrones design, but he is a motley sock of buttons and teeth that rival the other fall villain Pennywise, the IT clown.
Corris performance as Jason is tenderhearted and moving and as Tyrone, he is monstrous and rudely funny. His many scenes where he has conversations with Tyrone make you forget this is an actor basically acting with himself. Corris gives a deft and commanding performance as Jason and Tyrone, making clear separations of the two with a lightning quick timing.
HAND TO GOD explores the weak nature of faith, morality, and the ties and unchecked badness. This is a brilliant production, and places a spotlight on lost people caught up in their inabilities to deal with grief and loneliness. It is also uncomfortable horror with giggles that induces convulsive laughter while being terrifying. What makes Askins' play so effective is how he exposes all of the base demons and gives us hope that Tyrone is only a puppet. Next up at San Jose Stage is a tribute to Sam Shepard and his Modern Classic FOOL FOR LOVE Nov 22. Summer 2018 HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH will rock to close their season. In the meantime make Jason and Tyrone a must see, and leave your sock puppet at home.
San Jose Stage Company Presents
HAND TO GOD
A NEW AMERICAN PLAY
by Robert Askins
Directed by Randell King
Featuring; David Colston Corris, Alison Ewing,
LizzieO’Hara, Sean Okuniewicz and Keith Pinto
Must close October 15, 2017
SAN JOSE STAGE
490 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113
Two hours with an intermission
For tickets ($30-$65) contact San Jose Stage Company
box office at 408-283-7142, or www.thestage.org
All photos credited to Dave Lepori
The Cast of HAND TO GOD
David Colston Corris, Alison Ewing,
Lizzie O’Hara, Sean Okuniewicz and Keith Pinto
SJSU KEVIN REDRICO DEDICATION
I dedicate this review and my attendance to Sept 23rd opening of HAND TO GOD, to my actor friend KEVIN REDRICO who passed away earlier this 2017 theatre season. He was an expert Voice over actor singer and musician puppet expert. He had met the Berkeley Rep cast and playwright Robert Askins and he was set to audition for Jason and Tyrone at the San Jose Stage. We all miss you Kevin.
Kevin with the Berk Rep cast of HAND TO GOD with Michael Doherty