Every parent suspects, at one point or another, that their teenager is possessed by the devil. What if that were actually true? Robert Askins weaves a tale of just such a possession (albeit in the form of an ill-mannered sock puppet) in his play Hand to God, now receiving a new production by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre after a run at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011. This play is not for the faint of heart. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with an aversion to blood, profanity, or puppets. Everyone else is guaranteed to have one crazy night of hilarious and unforgettable theater.
Hand to God mostly takes place in and around a Lutheran church in suburban Texas. Recent widow Margery (Geneva Carr) runs the Christian puppet ministry in the church's basement. She has only three teenage students: her son, Jason (Steven Boyer), Balinese shadow-puppet enthusiast Jessica (Sarah Stiles), and raging hormone machine Timothy (an uncomfortably hunky Michael Oberholtzer). Timothy is hot for teacher, but so is opportunistic Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), who tells Margery that his arms were made for her. (Bleh!) When Jason's puppet, Tyrone (also voiced by Boyer), begins to take on a life of his own, Margery calls on Pastor Greg to perform an exorcism. (Do Lutherans even know how to do this?!?!)
Set designer Beowulf Boritt (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) proves once again to be a master of American institutional interiors: The blue-painted cinder blocks of the church basement are festooned with inspirational Jesus posters. Furniture is made mostly of brightly colored molded plastic. This makes for an all-the-more-startling reveal when Tyrone "redecorates" this basement puppet studio à la Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Hand to God makes the Tony-winning adult puppet musical Avenue Q look like Lamb Chop's Play-Along. Tyrone is just so foulmouthed and blasphemous, I'm at a loss to find a representative quote that can be printed here. With a shock of flaming red hair and jagged teeth designed to rip flesh, he whips around the stage (dragging Jason behind him), telling people off while revealing their deep dark shame and hypocrisy. (Secret knowledge is a hallmark of demonic possession.) Most of the time he makes a lot of sense. It's hard not to have sympathy for this devil.
Under a lesser director, Hand to God could easily slip into the realm of angry sophomoric theater: thrillingly subversive for the first five minutes, obnoxiously reductive the rest. Luckily, Moritz von Stuelpnagel has led his cast to nuanced and sympathetic performances that augment our ambivalence about the whole tawdry affair: Carr's Margery is not just a clumsy Mary Kay Letourneau caricature, but a real woman navigating single motherhood. While Kudisch's Pastor Greg at first seems like a slimy dude using his "Godly" authority to take advantage of a woman in emotional distress, he actually surprises us by not calling the cops when things with Margery and Tyrone get out of control. All things considered, it becomes very hard to pass judgment on any of the characters at this play's center.
Boyer particularly stands out for his tour-de-force dual roles. We never question that Tyrone is a completely separate entity. Whether that is the result of demonic possession or the emotional outbursts of an uncommonly talented puppeteer is a subject for debate. A scene in which Jason does battle with Tyrone is strenuous and gruesome, inducing flinches and gasps from the audience: It made me wonder just how many blood packets MCC has stocked up backstage.
If you're worried that satanic puppets will permanently scar your happiest childhood memories, you should probably sit this one out. Otherwise, you really shouldn't miss this delightfully demented black comedy from one of the most exciting young playwrights working today.