Review: “Hand to God” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

From it’s original incarnation in 2011 to the 2013 MCC production to the original Broadway run, critics seem to almost unanimously agree about one thing: Hand to God is absolutely hysterical. With a humor style a few shades darker than pitch black and a plot structure of pure insanity, it’s hard to walk away from Hand to God doing anything but clutching your aching belly from laughing so hard. What many critics didn’t always pick up on, however, was Hand to God‘s surprisingly enormous sociological implications and thematic sweep, which elevates the unassuming play from a typical comedy to a genuine modern day masterpiece.

Taking place in rural Texas in the modern day, Hand to God focuses on a Christian puppet ministry run out of a local church basement. For those who don’t know, puppet ministries are programs that involve the creation of puppets to enact biblical stories to teach young children moral lessons in cute and fuzzy felt. Running the ministry is Margery, a recently widowed mother whose husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Attending the ministry is Timothy, a teenage bad-boy with a scary-yet-sexy energy, Jessica, the quirky girl next door and object of desire for Jason, a sexually and emotionally repressed nerdy kid who happens to be the son of Margery. Overseeing the ministry is Pastor Greg, a middle aged, seemingly mild mannered man with a lust for Margery that goes way beyond appropriate. The action centers around Jason, when Tyone, the puppet that he has been building for the upcoming church recital, somehow ends up possessed by what appears to be the devil, vocalizing all of Jason’s deepest, darkest, and most hilariously inappropriate thoughts and encouraging him to indulge in his darkest impulses in the name of anarchy.

This is a pointedly genius setup (along with another fabulous side plot involving Margery and Timothy that I won’t reveal), and playwright Robert Askins milks it for all the humor that it is worth. The punchlines are fast, almost impossibly witty, and frequently so blasphemous and offensive as to make The Book of Mormon look like I Love Lucy. But Hand to God is not merely a work of comic construction and payoff; it’s also a frightening look at the modern world and how people interact in societal groups, and the underlying toxicity that comes from those groups. The structures that are very pointedly in place at the beginning of this 95-minute piece are completely torn down by the end, in which a certain cosmic chaos is embraced. Askins sees humans for what they are: animals, savage animals, and he is not happy to let the action end until every character’s animalistic instincts are confronted and embraced by the characters and audience. While this is a message shared with Joe Orton’s similarly darkly comedic What the Butler Saw, Robert Askins uses the inherent fear of living in the 21st century to shrewdly attack societal structures, not to make you laugh, but to make you shake. Yes, you will laugh right up until the last ten minutes (which are dead-serious, revealing Askins’s intentions to be far more than comedic), but the laughter becomes more and more uneasy as the evening wanes, though you won’t be able to figure out why until the end of the evening.

By the time the play gets serious (and very, very violent), I genuinely thought that I was going to have some sort of panic attack from how intense the implications of Askins’s anger became for me (this is not authorial hyperbole; I started looking around for an exit in case the play overwhelmed me). Askins is suggesting an element of human nature that is so dark, yet seemingly so obvious that I felt that by the end of the evening, I had a newly augmented consciousness of society. For those among my readers who are arthouse film fans, imagine if Lars von Trier’s Melancholia actually managed to convince you that its central viewpoint was not just one belonging to the filmmaker, but a deep and unspoken truth about humanity that can not be ignored or argued with, and you’ll sort-of see what I’m talking about, but the play must really be seen and experienced to be believed.

If I have a complaint about Hand to God (and, unfortunately, I do), it’s the piece’s denouement. The overall finale is spectacular, but the final moments of the second act become almost optimistic and suggest a softening of Askins’s ethos that was almost certainly included to prevent the audience from rioting. But I still can’t help but wish that the finale had been as dark as the rest of the piece, fully descending into true satanic madness, as it may have been one of the best finales in any American play ever, cementing it as one of the best American plays ever written.

As long as you’re not devoutly religious, there’s really no possible reason not to go see Hand to God as soon as you can, and, luckily for Bay Area residents, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting a production of the show right now that is basically perfect. Michael Doherty plays the dual roles of Jason and Tyrone with manic energy, crack comic timing, physical gusto, and a considerable amount of depth. His severe voice modulation between the two characters, puppetry skills, as well as his ability to hold a conversation with himself, are so good that you frequently forget that he is providing the voices for both characters, even as he makes no attempt at ventriloquism, which makes it far too easy to see the two characters as separate entities. It’s a bravura performance, but one that works so well and so naturally that its only in retrospect that you are able to appreciate the technique. Carolina Sanchez as Jessica has a beautiful likability in her unassumingly witty role, and pretty spectacular puppetry skills as well that are on full display in a disgustingly glorious scene of…well, I’ll leave that as a surprise. Michael McIntire as Timothy is surprisingly true to life as a high school badass, and his character takes a pretty large character shift towards the middle of the play that could come across as rather strained with a lesser actor, but he makes it work like gangbusters. Laura Odeh as Margery gives the evening’s most emotionally sophisticated performance, having to tackle an enormously complicated character, but presenting her as fully human, even as her actions become as psychotic as the play itself. David Ivers has directed the proceedings with manic glee and a perfect balance between letting his actors play and keeping a swift pace. Jo Winiarski’s set is way more elaborate than it needs to be, but you have to appreciate its level of detail, including the way that it changes setting to resemble a rock concert (with the help of Alexander V. Nichols’s lights). There’s only one problem with Berkeley Rep’s production, and that’s the stage violence. There are three moments in the play that need to come across as shockingly violent, but, without proper sound effects (the sounds are provided by an onstage actor in a way that doesn’t convey their true magnitude), fail to register as well as they should.

Hand to God is pure anarchy. If all were right with the world, it would usher in a new age of playwriting, one that doesn’t just ignore the rulebook but burns it to a crisp for all the audience to see. But, as Hand to God so shrewdly shows its audience, all is not right with the world, and that paradigm shift probably won’t be the case. However, you should still seize the opportunity to see Hand to God while  you can. It’s awe-inspiring, and reminds you of just how potent an evening of theatre can be.

Hand to God plays at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through March 19th. Tickets and information available here.

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