Direction: Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (written by Robert Askins)
Circa Theatre; Circa One (April 22 – May 20)
Yes, you will see puppets fucking – let’s get that out of the way right now, it’s no plot-spoiler, the play is billed around that. And it’s crude and brilliant and devastatingly funny and you can Avenue Q-reference, and Meet The Feebles-namedrop all you want, it’s still funny and better, and different, and most importantly it’s not the crux of the play; Robert Askins’ hurtling-through-chortles script is deceptive and profound. That’ll be why this is the most produced play in America currently. Either that or the puppet sex…
And that’s the cleverness here – the appealing to both sides, the masking of intentions.
Hand to God is set in the basement of a church in American, the religious right using puppetry to allow teens to share feelings and to perform on the church’s stage. It’s also a mind-control tactic, or a brainwashing of sorts. So when Jason (Tom Clarke) finds his puppet possessed – he can’t shake Tyrone, and if he even tries the puppet (literally) bites back – we plunge down deep through brave, perceptive and grotty humour to sharp ruminations on freedom of speech, on grieving, on the entwinement of the personal and political.
Margery (an excellent Amy Tarleton) is teaching her son Jason and two other kids, Jessica (Hannah Banks) and Timmy (Jack Buchanan) to express themselves through puppetry. She’s recently widowed and fighting off the advances of Pastor Greg (Peter Hambleton). There are other advances she should be fighting off too but these characters are so far from perfect or pure. As the play rolls out we find further deceptions, evil intentions and a desperation – and madness – that is nearly all consuming.
It’s frequently hilarious – cruel and cutting – and that’s something of its own slight-of-hand trick. Director Lydnee-Jane Rutherford has assembled a dream cast and crew – amazing sound design and soundtrack choices add to the energy and the clever revolving set (Ian Harman) and puppets (Jon Coddington) are stars in their own right.
Banks and Buchanan are brilliant supporting players here and all of the actors apart from Hambleton have to do some puppeteering. But it’s Clarke that has the lion’s share of work here – and in general across the play. He grabbles with two different accents, two separate voices and the deft puppetry skills. All while making you wince and worry, sympathise and feel frustration and shame – both at him and for him. It’s a virtuoso performance and so intuitively linked to the script’s brilliance.
Hand to God offers a great deal. And/or you could just go and see some puppets fucking and screaming obscenities. If that’s all you get from it and all you want from it your money won’t be wasted. But there’s depth, deep, dark – hell-scraping – depth here. And truth. Ugly, brutal truths.