I would proclaim “Hand to God” features the most graphic puppet-on-puppet sex scene I’ve seen since “Team America: World Police,” but I also saw “Anomalisa” earlier this year. Nevertheless, City Theatre’s latest production contains no shortage of scandalous delights. A contemplative, oddly enchanting coming-of-age dramedy centered around grief, puberty, social alienation, religious skepticism, and (more than) one’s sexual awakening, mostly involving puppets, Robert Askins’ deliciously deprived new play is decidedly more “Avenue Q” than Sesame Street. It’s coarse, obscene, shocking, demented — all of which count as its virtues. It may not win everyone over, but those who like their plays with a touch of sin will turn into believers.
. . .City Theatre’s latest production contains no shortage of scandalous delights.
In modern Texas, Jason (Nick LaMedica) is a blooming teenager grieving over the loss of his father. He lives in a quiet Lutheran town, where his widowed mother Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) teaches puppetry class for the local children, which includes mature-beyond-her-years Jessica (Maggie Carr) and sexually frustrated bad boy Timmy (Michael Greer). Their pastor Greg (Tim McGeever) is not particularly subtle in his admiration for Margery, but she has other concerns.
In addition to her own mental health woes, which crack open wider with each passing day, Jason is on the verge of a mental breakdown of his own — or so it seems — when his local orange-felt puppet Tyrone decides to form a life of his own, terrorizing his owner in his sleep, yelling cuss words and other obscenities at those around them, and making obvious plays towards Jessica, whom Jason has a crush on. His mom chalks it up to little more than psychological distress, but Pastor Greg believes Jason’s possessed by the devil, a problem which grows more concerning when Jason attacks his students, wreaks havoc on the church, and causes everyone to release their inner sinner in a short manner of time.
It’s a devilish good time, parading as a godsend. Inspired, raunchy, and quick to shock or offend, it’s also a rather tender piece, laced with sincerity and pathos. Much like Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver,” “Hand to God” is a Jekyll and Hyde-esque character piece with the added benefit of puppets, outlandish behavior, violence, and political incorrectness. Stuffed with as many laughs and insights as it is littered with cotton, wool, and stitch threads, it’s a dark comedy with a razor edge and a piercing bite, and an introspective drama that’s sorrowful, pained, and reflective. It might be hard to convince your church buddies to come along, but those who agree to come along are the ones worth having around for the insanity. You’re likely not going to see a play quite like it this year. Don’t miss out.
What truly makes or breaks City Theatre’s “Hand to God” is LaMedica, providing a dual performance that’s distinct and captivating in its layered empathy, morality, and fragile heartbreak. You’re always aware of the phenomenal puppetry skills he’s displaying, but the actor consistently makes you believe Tyrone is, in fact, a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood character just like any other sharing the stage. He might as well sneak out of his hand and start performing on his own. You might not bat your eye for a second if that were to happen.
The other actors hold their ground, particularly Velten Smith, but it’s ultimately LaMedica’s production, and he owns it. Its astounding electricity and frenetic energy, brought with such care and investment by director Tracy Brigden, is a marvelous thing to behold, especially in watching these talented performers and behind-the-curtain artists bring this warped, feverish display of indecency and moral bankruptcy with such maddeningly wonderful devotion and faith. It’s a beautifully ludicrous display, with almost all Ten Commandments broken before the cast takes their final bow. I mentioned the graphic puppet sex scene, right? Word to the wise: it might not be wise to take your mom with you to this particular production. I’m speaking for a friend, of course.
“Hand to God” is certainly not for the easily offended, but they’re missing out on all the fun anyway. Hilarious, cutting, and emotionally visceral, this play is a miracle to behold. Richly written, impressively designed, warmly directed, and filled with captivating performances, both from the humans and the puppets, it’s an honest-to-god delight from beginning to end. More than that, it’s a righteous good time. You can confess your sins another day. Dip your hand into the outrageous tonight.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Contains strong adult language and content. May not be appropriate for under 18s.
“Hand to God” plays through October 16, 2016 at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information and tickets, click here.