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Hand to God

A sock puppet can be fun, but isn't always wholesome.

Liam Forde as Jason in Hand to God, directed by Joanie Schultz, at Studio Theatre.
(© Amy Horan)

Ever since Avenue Q dispelled the belief that all puppets were sweet, cuddly beings with funny voices and encouraging words, a plethora of theater pieces have tried to shock audiences with puppets out of their "element." Studio Theatre is currently home to one of the latest and most popular, Robert Askins' Hand to God, which follows a demonic sock puppet who is trying to cause hell in the small Mount Logan Lutheran Church of Cypress, Texas.

The story opens with the recently widowed Margery, who is asked by the town pastor to take over the church's puppet ministry. The purpose of the club is to guide children to the word of the Bible and learn how to avoid the evils of Satan. Three teens are the so-called puppet recruits — Jason (Margery's son), Jessica (the girl next door and Jason's crush), and Timmy (the troublemaker). Only the real hell raiser makes his presence known when Tyrone (Jason's puppet) announces he is Satan and entices the others to follow his sinful ways.

Liam Forde plays the troubled teen Jason and his alter ego, Tyrone the sock puppet. Forde aptly creates two distinct voices in tone, which allows audiences to quickly see the pair as separate but equal characters. As Tyrone evolves throughout the production (pointy teeth, scars, and mismatched eyes), Forde subtly changes Jason, as well, into someone more enlightened and charismatic. His voice, so silent in the beginning, becomes as strong as the puppet he controls. A heightened physical battle between the two is tightly choreographed; Forde does a great job of making it seem realistic.

Susan Rome plays the widow Margery. She brings an understated sadness to the role. You know Margery is hurting, but she fights back the tears and tries to supply her son with some motherly love — despite what's happening with his evil sock pocket and the pastor believing her son is acting out and in need of help. As Lutheran Church pastor Greg, Tim Getman is downright sinister. Ryan McBride as Timothy has some great comic moments. Each of their characters' relationship with Margery is explored in an interesting way. The latter involves a mix of humor and passion that is mouth gaping, while the former will leave you cringing, feeling Margery's desperation. Caitlin Collins' has layers above and beyond just being the standard crush, which makes us yearn for a little more storyline from her.

The book walks a tightrope of absurdity — its lead is a sock pocket, after all — but Askins' script is witty and powerful without using shock to overwhelm. Sure, there are plenty of laughs, but it's not so ridiculous that you don't eventually see Tyrone as a "real" voice and the final message is one that is deeper than you would think. Director Joanie Schultz chooses to let realism overtake farce in several key scenes, and while sock puppet Tyrone and his fellow sock soldiers try to do damage, their scenes never overpower the message of teenagers being teens. It's the human element that ultimately remains the story to watch.

Daniel Conway's dollhouse-inspired set makes you feel as if you have just stepped into your church basement. Anyone who's ever been in a teen group or church meeting will be taken back in time. Checkerboard tiles align the floor, posters of Jesus hang on the wall, and family board games decorate a cascading bookshelf.

Keep in mind, the play does offer up some pretty blasphemous talk, so if you can't take a dirty joke (or ten) about religion, best to steer clear. Although naughty to no end, Hand to God delivers a message that's relevant to all of us today: In the end, is there really a savior? If there is, let's just hope it's not a sock puppet.

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