The Jungle Theater has quickly become one of my favorites in the Twin Cities. Not only is it right around the corner from my apartment, but their performances have consistently knocked my socks off! Convenient because this production knocked them off and then stole them to become puppets in their latest production and final of the season, Hand to God by Robert Askins. This show was disgusting, vile, foul, full of cussing and yet I can't wait to purchase a ticket to see it again. It was that good. Absolutely hilarious. When I laugh, I tend to cackle like a witch...well Happy Halloween because I was cackling through the entire thing.
Hand to God takes place in a small conservative town in suburban Texas at a Lutheran church. Recently widowed Margery is put in charge of the Christian puppet ministry in the church's basement by Pastor Greg. While her class only resides of three teenagers, she takes the job seriously in hopes it'll keep her mind off of what is happening in her own life. In her class is her son Jason, his school girl crush and puppet enthusiast Jessica and the overly sexual Timothy, who has the hots for his teacher. Jason tries to be involved as much as he can for the sake of his mother however his life however when his puppet Tyrone begins to take on a life of his own, things start to get a little demonic.
The set is wonderfully designed by Chelsea Warren to resemble a very real feeling church basement complete with posters, 90's themed wallpaper and various stuffed animals. It feels like one of those rooms that a church uses for multiple reasons because it's too small to have rooms devoted to various programs. The set eventually becomes completely destroyed by Tyrone's demonic possession where lights flicker, shelves break and things go flying across the room and it's pretty fun to see. Hidden moving walls help complete the set to change the scene to various rooms in the church, including Pastor Greg's office, and Jason's bedroom. It was very innovative and interesting to see this intimate set change in the way it did.
This cast is small but extremely talented. Their ability to make us laugh while talking about important themes is unreal and also a testament to Askins writing talents. Tracey Maloney, who plays Margery, shows off an immense range of emotions in this show from heartbroken to raw sexual energy and still managing to make us laugh along the way. Her scenes with Eric Sharp, who plays Timothy, are ludicrously comedic. I couldn't stop laughing and just when I thought they could go any farther, they push the line again. C. Michael Menge, who plays Jessica, anchored the play in realism with their portrayal of "the girl next door" who eventually becomes a hero towards the end of the show with some pretty spectacular puppetry their self. Kris Nelson plays Pastor Greg and perfectly captures the essence of a creepy pastor but also managed to win me over as all he wants is the best for Margery and her son.
The star of the show is Riley O'Toole who plays Jason and the puppet Tyrone. O'Toole comedic timing and abilities resembles a young Robin Williams and that is truly one of the highest compliments I think I can give. He perfectly is able to separate both characters from each other with distinct voices and never dropping energy while controlling Tyrone. I can't imagine how tiring the role is as an actor but O'Toole knocked my socks off (there I go again with that analogy but it's so true). At times he is basically in a two person scene however playing both roles as he controls Tyrone. Calling O'Toole a genius still feels like not enough because I was so blown away with his ability to bring a tear to our eyes as a depressed and struggling kid but also make my face hurt from laughing so hard.
While this play can easily be described as a foul and cheap way to get a few laughs, it really does have some interesting themes behind it. Religious hypocrisy really does take a huge hold across the show, especially with a giant cross in front of all of our faces. Tyrone begins and ends the show with monologues about religion and how some may use it to comfort themselves whether they are big believers or not. Does religion control some people? Is it the basis for a lot of people's actions? How often can people use it as a scapegoat for the unexpected and unbelievable phenomenon that we call life? This dark comedy by Askins has quickly become one of my favorite new plays and I really hope more theaters take a chance on producing it.
Hand to God plays at the Jungle Theater now through August 19th and the run is half sold out already so buy your tickets soon! NOTE: Hand to God contains mature language and sensitive content. Discretion is advised.