“Hand to God,” Robert Askins’ wickedly funny black comedy opens the season for DEZART PERFORMS and what a great choice it is.
The play mostly takes place in a rural Texan Presbyterian church’s seemingly benign basement classroom (perfectly designed by Thomas L. Valach and lit by Derrick McDaniel), adorned with overly cheery posters and inspiring sayings. Margery (Yo Younger) is instructing 3 ostensibly teenagers (all played by adults) in the art of Christian Puppetry. One is named Timothy (Danny Gomez) a troubled youth well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent He is in the class so his mother can attend an addiction recovery group meeting. Then there is Jessica (Brenna Williams) who seems to be really interested in the puppetry (although she prefers Balinese Shadow puppets, she’ll take what she can get) and projects traces of some issues of self-worth. The third youngster is Jason (Eddie Vona) who has the beginnings of a teenage crush on Jessica and also 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 in financial difficulty making this job of vital importance to Margery. It is not long before the scars of their emotional upheaval becomes more than evident. In Jason’s case it takes the form of a hand puppet named Tyrone who claims to be Satan 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 here that the teenage roles are performed by slightly 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.
Rounding out the cast is Pastor Greg (Roy Abramsohn) who has no qualms about taking advantage of Margery’s situation and her need to keep her job in order to 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, did I mention this was a comedy? A very, very, funny 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, truly laugh-out-loud funny, providing a liberal usage of profanities does not offend you, after all they are coming from Satan himself!
Michael Shaw has once again 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 dramatic moments get lost. He has also assembled one of the strongest casts I have seen in some time.
As the wannabe teenage delinquent, Danny Gomez scores some really big laughs with his expert timing and is gifted with a face and body that is made 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, with eyes still looking for adult approval.
Brenna Williams makes Jessica a sympathetic character who tries to stand tall and project some degree of assuredness while still working through many of the issues faced by girls her age. She makes it clear that she is the one truly unwilling and innocent participant to the insanity going on around her.
As Pastor Greg, Roy Abramsohn projects all the warmth and gentleness that one associates with the Pastor of a small town’s church but makes the sin of his desires ripple just below the surface until he sees the ‘it’s now or never’ moment and let’s his own personal demon out of its cage within.
Yo Younger adds another jewel of a performance to her ever growing catalog of impressive work. She is an actress who seems to effortlessly excel at every role she undertakes. Whether it is a light comedy or the most serious of dramas, Ms. Younger is the kind of actress who not only performs a role but inhabits it. And her Margery in this play is no exception. With a consistent and flawless southern accent, she makes even the most outrageous of Margery’s actions feel totally logical as if there is no other option to even consider. She doesn’t just put her toe into the waters swirling around these characters, she jumps right into the deep end of the pool to fully embrace every nuance of her character. Brava!
Rounding out the cast is an amazing performance by Eddie Vona 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 although his eyes betray the totality of the 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. Vona 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.
It took guts for Mr. Shaw to gamble on this play as the opener for the theatre company’s current season but it is a bet that has, in this reviewer’s opinion paid off big time! Bravo to everyone at Dezart Performs. I urge you to go and see this fascinating wild and funny play while you can. HAND TO GOD plays through November 17, 2019. For further information go to www.DezartPerforms.org and tell them the Devil made you do it!