by Sheila Barth
SpeakEasy Stage Company presents Robert Askins‘ Broadway, multi-nominated, two-act, two-hour comedy, through Feb. 4, Boston Center for the Arts, Virginia Wimberly Theatre, 527 Tremont St., Boston, Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday,3 p.m.; Feb.2, 2 p.m. also. For mature audiences only. Tickets start at $25; student, senior, 25-year-old-under, discounts. 617-933-8600, SpeakEasyStage.com.
Some people think Robert Askins’ play, “Hand to God,” is irreverent, blasphemous, gross, and horrible. Actually, it’s an in-your-face satire about a Southern, small-town Texas church, its pastor, a Christian Puppet Ministry teacher, three teen-agers, and an out-of-control puppet named Tyrone. Throughout the play – that’s popular internationally and nationally – there are touches reminiscent of multi-award winners “The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q,” and others of the same genre. However, “Hand to God” is a wildly bizarre comedy, not a musical.
Directed by David R. Gammons, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production boasts Boston’s topnotch stars, Marianna Bassham and Lewis D. Wheeler, along with talented the Dario Ladani Sachez portraying naughty teenager Timothy, sensational actor-puppeteer Eliott Purcell portraying Jason and Josephine Elwood as Jessica. Yes, it’s for mature audiences only. Although the play features sock puppets, it isn’t your typical puppet show. There are scenes with barrages of “f” bombs, cuss words, and sexual content that some religious or strait-laced theatergoers may consider offensive but others may think are funny. Playwright Askins wants to grab your attention and keep it throughout the play, and he and this cast accomplish that goal with aplomb.
In a sense, the over-the-top play has some biographical roots for Askins. He originally hailed from Cypress, Texas, where his mother, like the widowed Margery in the play, led a Lutheran church puppeteer ministry. Askins attended Baylor University, where college officials insisted he tone down his unbridled behavior. Like Margery’s socially awkward teen-age son, Jason, Askins’ father died when he was 16. In a post-show talkback, the effusive 36-year-old Askins confirmed that he preached from the pulpit when he was 16-17 years old, and participated in his mother’s ministry. The comparisons end there.
Unlike good, caring, shy teen-ager Jason, Askins was never overtaken by an evil puppet, the way Jason becomes with Tyrone, his demonic alter-ego. Askins raises the question of whether the suppressed teen-ager, Jason, whose father died seven months earlier, was so grief-stricken and shocked by his loss and his mother’s outlandish, secret sexual proclivities, that he vented his anger and frustration by transferring his dark thoughts to Tyrone. Does Askins want us to believe that Jason became possessed by evil force Tyrone, who spouts scandalous truisms and wreaks hellish havoc?“It’s both,” says Askins, who added that he is delighted with SpeakEasy Stage Company’s cast and crew.
Designer Cristina Todesco has the ungodly task of creating the church basement Christ-cateers puppet classroom, adorned with pictures of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary and children, and more. The upper back wall contains this quote: “Jesus Will Wash Away Your Sins”. But, nope, that doesn’t happen here. Margery says she’s still grieving over her husband’s death, but she engages in a scandalous relationship with sexy, naughty teen-age student Timothy.
Kindly pastor Greg wants to help Margery, too. He formed the puppet ministry to hopefully cheer her. He says he wants to be more supportive to her – in all ways. But Margery isn’t attracted to the well-intentioned pastor “that” way. Her more blatant, immoral desires boil over, in a scene with Margery and Timothy, wreaking hell and damnation in the classroom.
In the second act, Tyrone goes on a satanic rampage, hideously vandalizing the former pristine classroom. Sound designer Andrew Duncan Will’s terrifying crashes and reverberating, evil voices, coupled with Jeff Adelberg’s sanguine-hued flashes of demonic intervention, are nightmarish. As Tyrone becomes increasingly violent and destructive, he sinks his teeth into his human targets, and is more penetrating with Jessica’s female puppet, Jolene.
Don’t fret, though. Applying Christian doctrine, good triumphs over evil. See it, laugh with it. Take it for what it is, and definitely – absolutely – leave the kids at home.