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A Possessed Puppet Delivers High Raunch In 'Hand To God'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 26, 2016 3:00PM

Victory Gardens' production of 'Hand to God.' Photo by Liz Lauren.

When a seemingly innocuous, bug-eyed sock puppet on your right hand begins spewing out amusingly lewd commentary, you listen. That’s the situation that shy, teenage Jason finds himself in when his church-group sock puppet starts to take on a mind—and completely unholy agenda—of its own. But when that puppet graduates to menacing epithets and frenzied destruction, much to its handler’s horror, it’s time to call in the exorcist.

Hand to God, Robert Askins’ bold, darkly funny play—making its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens—is a far cry from its sweet (albeit raunchy) cousin, Avenue Q. The taut, fast-paced show manages to juggle sweeping themes—grief, religion, repression—alongside shocking verbal and physical comedy, buttressed by a small cast of standout performers (especially Alex Weisman as both Jason and his demonic puppet, Tyrone).

At first blush, it seems that the foul-mouthed Tyrone is simply an auditory vehicle for Jason’s pent-up emotions, which he’s been keeping to himself in the wake of his father’s death six months ago, mostly for the benefit of his still-grieving mother, Margery (Janelle Snow). Margery, meanwhile, is trying to keep things together for her son. She spends her time volunteering at the church while fending off the advances of both kindly pastor Greg (Eric Slater) and sex-crazed bad boy Timothy (Curtis Edward Jackson). Margery, though, doesn’t have a rogue sock puppet through which to channel her hurt and frustration, resulting in a serious lapse in judgment that fuels Tyrone’s reign of terror in the basement-turned-demon’s-lair of their suburban Texas church.

As the mania escalates—and the line between Jason and his puppet alter ego becomes increasingly blurred—director Gary Griffin nails the tone, allowing the play to shift into hysteria without devolving into farcical melodrama. One of the funniest scenes comes when the tension (and the dark overtone) is at its highest: Jessica (Nina Ganet), Jason’s endearing, girl-next-door love interest, appeals to Tyrone’s own base desires with her (non-possessed) puppet, Jolene. It’s a scene that’s as bawdy as it is inventive and, ultimately, touching—and it makes Avenue Q look like a Disney movie.

Weisman’s ability to transition from the reedy-voiced Jason to the completely unhinged Tyrone, often in a split second, is simply masterful, and reason enough to see this odd, compelling play. (Perhaps the Puppet Bike should get in on the act.)

At its heart, Hand to God is a disturbingly brilliant, relatable piece of comedy. Idle hands be damned.

Hand to God runs through Sunday, Oct. 23 at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets available online or by phone (773-871-3000).