Alex Weisman, Curtis Edward Jackson, and Nina Ganet in the Chicago premiere of Hand to God, directed by Gary Griffin, at Victory Gardens Theater.
Alex Weisman, Curtis Edward Jackson, and Nina Ganet in the Chicago premiere of Hand to God, directed by Gary Griffin, at Victory Gardens Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

Hand to God, now playing at Victory Gardens' Biograph Theater, begins very simply. A little puppet theater stands in front a brick wall. A simple green puppet emerges from below. Then, everything gets a lot less simple. The audience is asked to consider where, exactly, mankind went wrong. Was it when we began hunting in packs? When we developed moral codes? Or when we figured out the best ways to subvert those codes? Pretty heady stuff from a puppet, and that's just the prologue. When human characters are introduced, things get even more complicated.

Margery (Janelle Snow), newly widowed, is teaching a class on puppet ministry in the basement of her Texan church. It was simply meant to be "work for idle hands," as suggested by Pastor Greg (Eric Slater), but Margery's shy son Jason (Alex Weisman) has really taken a shine to his puppet, Tyrone. When Tyrone begins to develop a personality of his own, nobody is more concerned than Jason.

Maybe Tyrone is a demonic possession. Maybe he's symptom of an emergent personality disorder. Or maybe he's simply the toy of a bereaved kid trying to work through his pain. Whatever the reason, Tyrone says what Jason can't — he accuses Jason's deceased father of carelessness, berates his mother for her selfishness, and calls out Jason himself for being a spineless authoritarian. As Jason cedes more control to Tyrone, all the members of the puppet ministry club, including the adults, seem to lose control as well.

Faced with the difficult task of playing both an introverted teen and the demonic troublemaker on the end of his arm, Weisman rises to the occasion. His kind, childish face makes it easy to root for Jason, even when facilitating Tyrone's darkest deeds. As Jessica, Jason's classmate and crush, Nina Ganet is the closest thing Hand to God has to a comedic straight man, and she does it well. Curtis Edward Jackson's showier performance as the surly, sexual Timmy is unnerving and dangerously funny. And Slater finds surprising pathos in Pastor Greg, the overwhelmed leader of this misfit flock.

All are great fun to watch as they devolve into irreverence, but while Jason's transgressions are generally hilarious, his mother Margery crosses one particular moral boundary so thoroughly that it is difficult to laugh, despite Snow's excellent comedic commitment.

Luckily, there are still plenty of laughs in Hand to God, often interspersed with extreme violence. David Woolley's fight choreography is brutal and believable even from the front rows, and Weisman is at his bombastic best when doling out or receiving the pain — occasionally, it's both at the same time.

Thanks to director Gary Griffin, the physicality of Hand to God is not limited to its inventive violence. Whether they're shimmying through windows, copulating, or collapsing in tears, the five actors throw themselves all over Joe Shermoly's detailed, rotating set with such fearlessness that they may as well be felt puppets. The puppets themselves, designed by Rachel Christianson, are no less engaging. Tyrone's design is expressive but simple, and Jessica's puppet, while not as prominent, features a sight gag too good to spoil in a review.

Just before raunchy irreverence can overstay its welcome, the play focuses back in on the humans underneath the puppets — a family facing loss, a good man trying to stay on a righteous path, teenagers handling their hormones as best they can. The philosophical questions posed at the beginning of the night never get answered, of course, but in a play this funny, who cares?