A Foray into the Frightening, Foul Mouthed & Funny Vagaries of Speaking the Truth

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 863   By: Robert E Martin

14th June, 2018     0

Presented off-season as part of their ‘After Dark’ series, Pit & Balcony Community Theatre will be presenting Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins dark-comedy that explores the fragile nature of faith, morality, and the ties that bind us, in a series of performances running from June 21-23rd.  

Originally produced Off-Broadway in 2011 and 2014 and on Broadway in 2015, Hand to God received five Tony Award nominations, including Best New Play, with a narrative that follows the character of Jason (portrayed by Nathan Hanley) whom after the death of his father discovers an outlet for his anxiety at the Christian Puppet Ministry, located in the devoutly religious and relatively quiet small town of Cypress, Texas.

Jason’s complicated relationships with the town pastor, the school bully, the girl next door, and his mother are thrown in upheaval when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, takes on a shocking and dangerously irreverent personality all its own, with a spectacularly foul mouth and a thirst for young flesh, exposing secrets that the other characters would rather have left unacknowledged, spewing forth acid commentary that turns goose bumps of unease into guffaws.

But Hand to God is not a horror story, or at least not a horror story in which the forces of evil are supernatural. What makes the play so sneakily resonant is how Mr. Askins exposes the base impulses, the sexual, self-destructive, potentially violent ones, that just about everyone harbors to some small degree.

Directed by Dr. Todd Thomas, numerous qualities about this contemporary work drew him take over the helm and navigate the direction of this cutting-edge production.

Hand to God is an interesting play because it’s easy to not understand what it’s about,” states Thomas. “The fact its set in Texas is a minor issue because it could be set in any rural community where the people are simple and don’t necessarily have a lot of the resources they might have in a bigger city.  The other interesting thing – at least in my interpretation – is that even though the play is also set in a church that allows for the premise of the puppets; what the church does is bring this societal structure into play that the actors all must deal with.  There’s nothing specifically anti-religious about the play, which a lot of people mistakenly think.”

“One of the things about this play is that often there will be a certain number of people that leave at intermission; and I believe there are two reasons for that. First, the language is pretty harsh and for some folks that’s not entertaining; but the other reason people sometimes leave is because they don’t understand what the play is about.  Our challenge is to make sure people understand why the language is placed as it is and why everything is happening the way it does.”

“A very interesting thing is that my background is in psychology and I told the Board of Directors at P&B that it was their fault they asked a psychologist to direct this particular play,” laughs Todd. 

“Puppetry is sometimes used by psychologists for instruction and guidance,” he continues, “and the way I approach the narrative how essentially this play is about the struggle between what we feel we need and those existing structures that exist and keep us from fulfilling those needs.  As I told the cast, no character in this show does not have their own struggle going on between their inner issues versus their outer appearance. All these characters have inner issues they are fighting with in terms of how they feel they ought to be and how they actually express themselves.”

“There are five people in the cast, but you could say there are seven if you count the two puppets,” notes Todd. “The main character Jason has a puppet named Tyrone, who is more or less the repressed Id to Jason’s ego,” reflects Thomas.  “The puppet is that inner part that starts to take over.”  The other character, Jessica, is portrayed by the director’s daughter, Emily Thomas. (“Wouldn’t you know this would be the first production I would cast her in,” he laughs). The remaining cast consists of Danielle Katsoulos as Margery, Spencer Beyerlein as Timothy, and Matt Kehoe in the role of Pastor Greg.

“Jessica is a woman who has a female puppet named Joleen and is very proper and put together and we believe she has it all figured out; but her puppet is actually this sex-crazed female puppet, so we have some fun with that,” continues Thomas.

“The Mom, who is named Marjorie, does not have a puppet but does have the same level of struggle as the other characters. She runs the puppet class at the church and knows how she’s supposed to be and tries to be good, but eventually the pressure of life is too much and she goes to this place that is uncomfortable for her to gradually help the two main characters get to some resolution with their issues.”

“Needless to say, this is very complicated play,” continues Todd. “The church gives these characters a good social structure, which they rebel against; but they are fighting against rules and are not anti-religious. Mainly the play takes that framework and uses that as part of what is oppressive to these folks who are struggling with big inner issues.”

When asked what makes Hand to God such a compelling and engaging production for audiences, Thomas references the divergent connections that are forged between the characters and the audience. 

“I firmly believe everybody that sees this play will find some character they identify with, regardless of whether we are in our 20s, 30s, or 60s age-wise, we’ve all had some situation where we have wanted to respond in a certain way but know we can’t, so have to deal with that kind of pressure because we’re civilized.”

“As extreme as this play gets, the strength of it is that you relate to what the characters are doing,” adds Todd. “People will establish connections with these characters and their situations.  It’s definitely a Dark Comedy and takes it to the extreme in both ways because it is equally funny and humorous as much as it is heavy, deep and dramatic.”

“The real trick as a Director is to develop both of these opposite elements at once, states Todd.  “The audience is watching this story unfold, which is not pleasant for these two main characters; yet there are moments that are very funny, so to have the actors understand that dichotomy and weave that into the delivery is quite a challenge and departure for me, but I’m loving it.  This isn’t the type of play one would expect me to direct, but it allows growth for everybody.”

“It’s important to understand that this is an ‘After Dark’ production, which means it has that element of language and sex woven into the narrative, so if that’s not your thing be for-warned. But I strongly feel Hand to God is definitely worth producing because it has an important message. If the language and sex were gratuitous and vulgar I would not have taken the project on.”

“The first time I read Hand to God I had the impression that you get in art galleries sometimes when you see a work that says a lot more than you necessarily understand, so need to read it again, or look at it closer,” notes Todd.

“The puppet essentially becomes a different character, as eventually Jason becomes so vastly different from Tyrone, so the actors handling these roles need to be really good at separating the tenor between these divergent personalities of their character. The mechanics of sculpting those differences is definitely a challenge; but the other challenge is that we are doing this on a ‘thrust’ stage, so we will have the audience on three sides of the stage – left, front and right – and 100 seats set up on the stage, which is a big challenge for the actors, because they’re right where the audience is. So, most of the rules regarding staging go out the window as well. Plus, the actors need to perform as if they were interacting with the audience.” 

“I really hope people show up to support this production and go through the whole experience of what Hand to God delivers to see what it’s about,” concludes Thomas, “because I think they’ll find it delivers a very significant message.”

Hand of God will run from June 21 – 22 – 23 at Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Theatre. Tickets are available by phoning 989-754-6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com





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