| Theater |

In Hand to God at GableStage, a Potty-Mouthed Puppet Takes on Religion and Teen Sex

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From Jekyll and Hyde to Fight Club, the trope of dual personalities has come in many forms throughout the history of storytelling. But it's probably fair to say it's never been tackled with as much irreverence and existential outrageousness than in playwright Robert Askin's Hand to God, which opens at GableStage at the Biltmore this Saturday. The play covers common cultural themes such as social taboos, religion, and sex. But in this case, it's all told via a vulgar, expletive-spewing sock puppet.

The plot of Hand to God is simple enough: A timid Texas teenager named Jason is forced to perform in his devout Christian mother's fundamentalist church puppet show. Along the way, he and the other teenaged puppet show participants become sexually attracted to one another. That's when Tyrone, Jason's puppet, takes on a life of its own — announcing that he is Satan and stirring up shit that threatens to bring the characters' deep, dark secrets to light.

"The kid's puppet takes possession of him," director Joseph Adler says. "Now, of course, it's up to the audience to decide whether he is, in fact, truly possessed or if this is all psychological."

Adler adds that it's serendipitous for GableStage to close out the 2016 season with this production, particularly after putting on Stalking the Bogeyman, a dark show about child sex abuse, in August.

"I certainly wanted to make a shift from that very serious play with something that wasn't just funny, but outrageous," he says. "It's the best kind of comedy because it's the kind that has something to say. I don't think I've seen a play that gets this many laughs in a while."

In 2011, Adler learned about the then-fledgling Hand to God and was intrigued by the play's irreverent concept. He visited an off-off-Broadway playhouse to see it for himself and immediately wanted to acquire the play's rights. But Hand to God proved difficult to nail down, especially after the play's popularity began to grow. The show eventually found its way onto Broadway, where it became an instant smash hit in April 2015. Ever persistent, and armed with the knowledge that he was one of the first to recognize Hand to God's brilliance, Adler never quit trying to get it to Miami.

"I've been chasing this thing ever since I saw it in previews in that tiny, tiny off-off-Broadway production, because it was just right for our audience," he says. "When I was finally able to get it, I decided it was perfect to close the season with it."

But Hand to God — a comedy with puppetry in which timing is everything — presents challenges Adler isn't quite used to.

"It's frenetic," he says. "There are great challenges for the actors, as well as the staging. There's tremendous movement and fighting going on in the play. So in a production like this, I had to put together a team of people to help pull it off."

Among those Adler brought onboard is master puppeteer Pauly Louis, who has helped with the blocking and more frantic sequences.

"He's been tremendous," Adler says, "because when the play works and cooks, it moves like gangbusters."

Adler also had to cast an actor familiar and comfortable with puppetry but also someone with the talent to pull off two very different characters at once. Wesley Slade, who plays Jason and his puppet Tyrone, seems to be a perfect find for the dual roles.

Slade, who last appeared with GableStage earlier this year as Frank Finger in Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play, has been working with puppets his entire professional career. Slade also feels a connection to Jason because their upbringings are so similar.

"I grew up in Mississippi in a Southern Baptist church, which had a puppet club and a ventriloquist that talked about loving Jesus," he says. "So this play really speaks to me and hits home in so many ways."

Slade is no stranger to taking on a character who has an existential crisis manifest itself in a puppet. One scene in It's Only a Play called for his character to pull a sock puppet out of his pocket and give a monologue as his tiny version of himself following a nervous breakdown. Slade sees some similarities in Jason, although on a much larger scale.

"That scene was just a monologue," he says. "This is an entire play where my character has to take on his inner turmoil through a puppet. I mean, here's a timid, introverted kid forced to deal with awkward situations when this puppet comes along and turns everything upside down. When Tyrone comes along, he says things that Jason is probably thinking."

Hand to God isn't a play for everyone, thanks to its Book of Mormon/South Park style of storytelling. It not only deals with taboos but also challenges fundamentalist Christian thinking via a puppet that curses like a sailor and reveals the darkness that lies in all men.

But Adler is convinced Miami audiences will delight in the play because it digs deep into human nature in a twisted way while making us laugh so hard we pee in our pants.

"It's not out of the question that there are people out there who would be offended by this play," he says somewhat proudly. "It has that edgy element that I absolutely love. And I can't stress enough how it manages to be shocking and irreverent and funny all at the same time."

Hand to God
Saturday, October 1, 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.

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