By Tristan Lejeune
The Studio Theatre’s production of Hand to God, which has been extended through August 28, is a good show that is somewhat overwhelmed by its trappings.
The Studio’s space has been done over — impressively — as a small Texas town church basement, the better to immerse audiences in this tale of amateur puppetry gone horribly wrong. Theatregoers are placed in plastic bucket seats (because those are famous for being comfortable) at communal tables, programs resemble church newsletters, and there are even blank white socks and other artsy supplies offered for you to construct your own hand puppet (um, pass).
The painted cinder-block walls and “Jesus Loves You” posters do indeed help you forget you’re on the fourth floor a block away from Logan Circle, but the setup also makes actually viewing Hand to God a trial on the neck. No seat has perfect sight lines, and every time the action shifts, there’s an audible scraping of chairs as we humble parishioners shift with it to view the story of frustrated teenager Jason (Liam Forde) and his evil puppet Tyrone.
Jason and his mother Margery (Susan Rome) recently lost a father and husband, and she’s taken up biblical crafts as an outlet; they call them the Christcateers. Along with a couple other less-than-devout young worshipers — sensitive, sharp Jessica (Caitlin Collins) and insensitive, dense Timothy (Ryan McBride), they’re working on turning felt, googly eyes and pipe-cleaners into a Sunday presentation: perhaps about the temptation of Eve, or Job would also be fitting. Rounding out the cast is Pastor Greg (Tim Getman), who has no idea what he’s unleashed inside his sanctuary.
The problem is Jason’s creation, Tyrone, has a mind of his own — a filthy, violent mind at that. At first he just curses and spills the usual unwanted truths, but then the full id-channeling kicks in, with sex and violence to follow. Is Jason possessed? Is Tyrone? Are they both crazy? Forde keeps you guessing.
It feels like the kind of thing Mulder and Scully might have investigated in season six or seven, down to the small Texas town (the dialect work is largely authentic, by the way, though a couple of the cast waver in and out). But these are not two-bit, network-walk-on characters. All five actors — and director Joanie Schultz — show that inside there’s sadness, and rage, and lust.
Collins and McBride make Jessica and Timothy more than just horny teenagers; they’re curious, intuitive people, too. Getman and Rome bring a rabid desperation to the resident adults in all this, but they don’t forget the compassion underneath. Forde and his elbow-deep friend have the tightrope to walk, of course, and walk it he does. At times he’s more horrified than anyone else at what Tyrone says and does, at times he seems to relish being along for the ride.
If puppet sex deeply shocks you, you must have missed Avenue Q. If hands-on (and -in) exploration of the devil inside, however, interests you, don’t miss Hand to God. It’s worse on your neck than a damn tennis match, but also a good workout for the funny bone.