Hand to God,” Robert Askins’ wickedly funny black comedy is the closing play for the 2022-2023 season at CVRep and what a great way to wrap up a wonderful season of shows.
The play mostly takes place in a rural Texan Presbyterian church, meticulously designed by Jimmy Cuomo and lit with her usual flair by Moira Wilkie Whitaker. After a brief prologue delivered by a sock puppet (it will make sense in a moment), the play begins in the church’s seemingly benign basement classroom, where Margery (Aleisha Force) is instructing 3 ostensibly teenagers (all played by adults) in the art of Christian Puppetry. One is named Timothy (Blake Kevin Dwyer), a troubled youth well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Then there is Jessica (Lea Madda), who seems to be really interested in Jolene, the puppet she is creating, although she confesses to prefer Balinese Shadow puppets but she’ll take what she can get. Right from the start, Jessica clearly shows she has some self-esteem issues.
The third youngster is Jason (Luke Wehner) who has the beginnings of a teenage crush on Jessica and also has the sad misfortune of being Margery’s only child. Both mother and son are working through some serious issues arising from the premature death of Margery’s husband who has left them both in a state of instability. It is not long before the scars of their emotional upheaval become more than evident. In Jason’s case it takes the form of a hand puppet named Tyrone, who claims to be Satan (or at least does not deny it) and who grows more sinister by the hour, expressing Jason’s darkest thoughts with more and more openness and physicality. This is a puppet with some serious teeth! Before long, it appears that the Satanic puppet has reversed the usual order of things and has taken control of the Puppeteer.
For Margery, her loneliness and sense of desperation leads her to make the disastrous choice of repeatedly giving in to the lustful flirtations of the underage Timothy, a secret that Tyrone is more than happy to reveal.
I think it is important to mention again that the teenage roles are performed by somewhat older actors. So, what would be really creepy and far from funny if performed by youngsters becomes twistedly funny and allows the audience to laugh and laugh they did!
Rounding out the cast is Pastor Greg (Kenny Stevenson) who has no qualms about taking advantage of Margery’s situation to hopefully satisfy his baser urges. Although he is the first to charge into the fight with the devil-puppet with the intent of performing an exorcism he is also the first to run.
Now, after all that, I did mention this was essentially a comedy. It is raunchy, with a puppet sex scene that outdoes anything in “Avenue Q.” It is creepy in the way many evil doll or puppet movies have been. Yet this play is far from being a horror story and is, in fact, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, providing a liberal usage of profanities does not offend you. But then what else could one expect as they are, after all, coming from Satan himself!
Director Craig Wells has delivered a first-class production. Under his direction, the play is tightly paced allowing the laughs to roll one right after the other while not letting the impact of the dramatic moments get lost. He has also assembled a very strong cast.
As the wannabe teenage delinquent, Blake Kevin Dwyer scores some really big laughs and has a knack for physical and slapstick comedy. He pulls off the hard task of playing this not-as-tough-as-he-thinks he is character by showing us the child he still really is, while trying to act mature enough to win Margery’s affections.
Lea Madda makes Jessica a sympathetic character who tries to stand tall and project some degree of assuredness while still working through the image-issues faced by girls her age.
As Pastor Greg, Kenny Stevenson projects all the attributes that one associates with the Pastor of a small-town church, that is until he confesses his desire for Margery in what turns out to be a mistake in timing.
Aleisha Force is brilliant as Margery. She has the knack of making us laugh and then break our hearts in the very next minute. We truly feel the pain and loss she is feeling while wading through the insanities going on around her. She is also gifted with a strong sense of comic timing solidly landing every laugh.
Rounding out the cast is an amazing performance by Luke Wehner as Jason and Tyrone, the puppet from hell. Right from the show’s opening in which Tyrone gives a short lecture on good and evil, he invests this sock puppet devil with a strong personality and vocal quality which hints at what’s to come while making us like him with his funny, expletive-filled explanation of the way things are or at least as he sees they are. While his Jason goes from shy and quiet to determined hero, we never lose sight of the growing fear he is experiencing. Tyrone too grows from wickedly funny with a wink and a laugh to just plain wicked. On top of these clearly defined characters, Mr. Wehner is playing both at the same time often in rapid fire conversations instantly switching back and forth between them and never fails to distinguish between the two personalities. It is truly an awesome performance.
As I was out of town for the opening week, I apologize for the lateness of this review, but I urge you to go and see this wickedly funny play before it closes. It runs now through April 9 at CVRep in Cathedral City. For tickets or further information visit their website at www.CVRep.org.
One more thing. CVRep has announced that it will be doing another summer of Thursday night Cabaret shows starting May 4, 2023 with “No One Is Alone,” the extraordinary Melissa Errico’s tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim. Last year’s summer season was truly exciting with many great Broadway stars shining on CVRep’s stage and I am promised that this year’s line-up will be every bit as great! Check their website for tickets and particulars, but I recommend grabbing the entire summer season now, as many of the shows last summer sold out. ‘Til then this is Stephen saying I hope to see you all at the theatre!