Puppet sex seems to be a theme this year. First, in Avenue Q at Footlite Musicals in March, again in Bat Boy at Theatre on the Square in May, and now in Hand to God, the latest production that the Phoenix Theatre snagged as it came off Broadway. It’s also a year of five-star reviews, as I have never handed out so many in such a small amount of time.
Much like Avenue Q, this show integrates puppets into its cast. But here, the puppets aren’t used to replace the human character behind (under? in?) them. Only one puppet, Tyrone, could be called an individual character—a demonic, vulgar, bloodthirsty one. Tyrone may be the puppet, but he is the puppet master.
If religious irreverence shocks you, you will have PTSD after seeing this show. The story is set in a small town in Texas. Margery, played by Angela R. Plank, is a recent widow who is trying to find a place for herself by teaching a puppet-making class at her church. Her awkward son Jason, played by Nathan Robbins, seems inordinately attached to his puppet. Also in class are love-interest Jessica (Jaddy Ciucci) and horny bad boy Timothy (Adam Tran). Margery has to deal with the advances of both Timothy and the church’s pastor, Greg (Paul Nicely), while dealing with depression, her estranged son, and unmotivated students.
Under the direction of Mark Routhier, the entire cast is stellar, but additional emphasis must be given to Robbins and his character’s id in puppet form. His mastery of the craft is remarkable. His puppeteering is so deft that you come to see Tyrone as a separate entity that has accepted the devil as his lord and savior. As Tyrone’s rampage escalates, a puppet exorcism is contemplated. In contrast to Tyrone, Robbins conveys a shy, insecure teen in Jason. His split-second oscillation of unrestrained rage to confused, scared boy could twist your spine.
Plank also gets to be a switch player, from an anxious, grieving widow to kinky sexcapader in the VBS restroom. She manages to be equally believable and sympathetic in both modes. Tran’s high-energy, testosterone-laden Timothy is the picture of a teen acting out, but his quest for the MILF Margery is sad too because he craves a human connection, as do the rest of the characters.
Nicely juxtaposes the role of righteous pastor and his passive-aggressive courter of Margery. You would think he would be the voice of reason, but he is bested by Tyrone as well. The group’s anchor in reality is Ciucci as Jessica, the only one who knows how to deal with Tyrone’s iniquity and Jason’s repressed emotions. Ciucci’s smart, steady portrayal buffers the other characters’ insanity.
The show is consistently hilarious, but it is also a reflection on human needs and desires. Snappy writing and superior performances make this another one not to miss.