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Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photo by Jason Allen)

Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.

Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”

This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.

The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.

Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.

My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.

Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.

Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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