Hand to God, which opened this weekend at GableStage at the Biltmore, is an irreverent black comedy whose greatest strength lies in one of the best casts ever assembled by the local theater company. The play, written by Robert Askins, takes place mostly in the basement of a fundamentalist Texas church, where a small group of teens takes part in a puppet club. Here, we meet Jason (Wesley Slade), an awkward and introverted teen whose recently widowed mother, Margery (Margery Lowe), heads the club. Jason’s crush — the smart and snarky Jessica (Casey Sacco) — is also part of the club, as is troubled, foulmouthed teen Timothy (Kristian Bikic). Meanwhile, Pastor Greg (Stephen G. Anthony), who's aggressively trying to court Margery, is counting on the group to put on a show before the congregation.
But the star of Hand to God is Tyrone (also played by Slade), Jason’s uproariously funny, expletive-spewing sock puppet. Tyrone opens the play by explaining how human nature is, and has always been, severely screwed up thanks to the man upstairs creating the concept of good versus evil — and how humans have always looked to blame the eternal bad guy, Satan, for wanting to enjoy the finer things in life (such as using swear words, being honest, and having lots of sex, but mostly having lots of sex). So when Tyrone begins to “take over” Jason’s words and actions, everyone naturally assumes the puppet is Lucifer in googly-eyed sock form.
Tyrone starts off as an innocent inanimate puppet controlled by Jason, but the roles are reversed soon enough. The kid shows himself to have a natural knack for manipulating the puppet by performing a scene from the classic Abbot and Costello “Who’s On First” bit for Jessica. The performance impresses the pretty girl, but when Jason’s shyness overtakes him, he stops midperformance. This is when the audience first sees Tyrone truly come alive. Jason lies to Jessica and tells her he came up with the bit himself, but Tyrone tells her the truth. He then hits on Jessica for Jason. She’s somewhat flattered, but Jason is overwhelmed with embarrassment. He doesn’t know what’s come over him. But it’s clear: Tyrone has taken possession of Jason and has become the unfiltered version of the teen. Tyrone has gone from cute little hand puppet to Jason’s id — and the results are at once hilarious and twisted.
Hand to God is as advertised. It gets crazy, irreverent, and funny by breaking taboos in a way that some viewers might find offensive. But the play’s humor flies best when Tyrone is being foulmouthed and rude. And it’s the cast’s well-timed slapstick performance that makes the play truly sing.
Slade is utterly magnificent as Jason/Tyrone. Physical comedy is tough, let alone the kind where one has to play two roles at the same time, but Slade’s performance is an amalgam of kinetic frenzy, blundering awkwardness, and unbridled rage. It’s a physically demanding role that has him constantly switching from Jason’s shy Texas twang to Tyrone’s gravely antagonism at the drop of a dime, and he absolutely nails it. Lowe, meanwhile, nearly steals the show as Margery — a woman caught in the middle of being pious and proper while walking the line of letting go and letting her carnal desires overtake her. She’s angry that her husband was taken from her in death and is constantly fighting with wanting to step out of her Christian skin and venting that anger in ways that would displease the Lord.
Margery is the heart of the story. Tyrone, of course, is its obscene, horny conscience. And it’s all manifested in Tyrone taking the audience on an uncomfortably side-splitting ride that includes wise-cracks, insults, violence, and a lengthy, albeit hilarious, full-on puppet sex scene (masterfully performed by Slade and Sacco).
Hand to God is Albert Camus’ The Stranger meets Fraggle Rock meets South Park. Beneath the flying expletives and puppet porn lies an existential message about fate and how much we all play a role in our short time on this mortal coil. For Margery, it's the debilitating existence of being a recent widow; for Jason, it’s the complicated dilemma of being an awkward, horny teen while dealing with loss. Hand to God certainly attacks religion (in this case, Christianity) as a crutch for the tragedies of life, while exposing the hypocrisy of the pious blaming their human foibles on the Devil. But it also delves deeply into human nature. Sex, libido, relationships, anger, confusion, loneliness, and mourning are all under the microscope, while the characters’ goofy actions and reactions make you laugh your ass off.
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Like most of GableStage’s productions, Hand to God relies heavily on scenery change that transports its audience within the intimate confines of the theater. And as usual, set designer Lyle Baskin does not disappoint. The changes from church basement to Jason’s bedroom to Pastor Greg’s office and back again are seamless within a play that moves at a frantic pace. Director Joseph Adler had his work cut out, directing a cast that has to play with puppets and be physically funny, but he pulls it off stupendously.
Hand to God pushes the envelope in the irreverence department. These are flawed characters who are faced with screwed-up situations, and if this were real life, those situations would be handled much differently. But that’s not really the point. Hand to God jabs its audience via taboos and profane jokes while letting everyone in on the eternal joke that is our lives.
Hand to God
Runs through October 30 every Thursday through Sunday at GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets start at $45 for general admission and $42 for seniors.