“Hand to God” Grabs Us by the Funny Bone, at Altarena Playhouse, Alameda
Robert Askins’ Obscene Puppet Sabotages the Church
by Tyler Jeffreys
Altarena Playhouse’s “Hand to God” magnifies the age-old philosophical question: What is right and wrong? Playwright Robert Askins uses puppets to tell a story of a lustful, sex-crazed church family in a small southern town. The human and puppet characters spring to life in this Bible Belt, bonified sex romp!
A Sunday school teacher and recent widow, Margery (alluring, hilarious Melanie DuPuy) is having a tough time running a puppet class for the Church youth. The 13 and 14-year-old students are played by wonderful adult actors with dramatic Texas drawls. Rule-breaking Timmy (precise Jason Anthony) surpasses his classmates’ maturity. Timmy licks his lips and hits on his sensual teacher, Margery.
DuPuy’s neurotic, sexually repressed Margery arouses Timmy’s hormones. She paces the classroom with a phony smile, luxuriously fanning herself with her hands. I’m hooked, bring on the crazy!
Margery’s son, Jason (doe-eyed Steven Samp) is repressed and awkward. Jason lags behind Timmy’s sexual awakening. But Jason proves that he’s a natural mimic and puppeteer. He tries to please his co-dependent Mom, even while Timmy bullies him.
Jason catches a break spending time with his crush, Jessica (sensible Madison Worthington). They rock together in two charming wooden swings that descend for them. Jason shows off for Jessica as he skillfully performs a vaudeville-style ventriloquist show.
Out comes his hand-puppet, sour and sarcastic Tyrone (multi-talented Samp, again), who turns out to be a purple puppet with brown hair. But, surprise, this puppet is also SATAN!
Tyrone gnashes his teeth at all around him, silencing submissive Jason. Like an athlete, Samp jumps on tables and crawls around the stage, dragged along by his puppet. His marvelous movements capture me, and I fear for Jason.
Samps’ voice changes from whimpering teenager to an aggressive go getter in nanoseconds, as he switches between Jason and the evil Tyrone. It’s like watching Sméagol from Lord of the Rings battle with himself. When Jason fights back, Tyrone exclaims, “You need me!”
Like the Biblical serpent, Tyrone instigates chaos and taboo desires. Set Designer Sofia Cassidy turns the church classroom into a black-lit Rock n Roll pit, with fluorescent white doodles of erections on the walls.
This southern fundamentalist church is intoxicated with lust. These angsty, depressed, church folk possess little self-control. Even nerdy, nasal Pastor Greg (convincing Montgomery Paulsen) tries his hand at Margery. Tyrone argues with Pastor Greg that desire isn’t evil. “Hand to God” bravely explores lust and love. Jason cannot ignore his awakening sexual desires. Tyrone embodies all the feelings that Jason is forced to repress. Our choices tip the scale one way or the other—self-control versus impulsive aggression.
Askins asks us to be wary when Tyrone or the church exert power over us.
“Hand to God” by Robert Askins, directed by Patrick Nims, at Altarena Playhouse, Alameda, through Monday, February 11, 2019. Info: altarena.org
Cast: Jason Anthony, Melanie DuPuy, Montgomery Paulsen, Steven Samp, and Madison Worthington.
Banner photo: Steven Samp, Tyrone, & Jason Anthony