Punch and Judy, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Trekkie Monster (along with other foul-mouthed, porn-surfing residents of Avenue Q), and those randy marionettes from Team America: to this list of celebrated, envelope-pushing puppets, add Tyrone, the hilariously demonic sock puppet who rules over Robert Askins’ remarkable stage play Hand to God (Berkeley Repertory Theatre).
Blending arch one-liners, expert slapstick and shocking (but funny) acts of violence with outrageously pointed observations about faith, guilt, parenthood and the notions of good and evil, Hand to God is not the first show to feature puppets saying and doing bad things. But as written by Askins, this hard-to-describe comedy-drama—a 2015 Tony nominee for best new play—always feels fresh and inventive, even a bit transgressive in its willingness to go places very few puppet-shows have ever dared to go.
Directed with spot-on precision by David Ivers, Hand to God is set in a small-town Texas church, where a troubled, sweet-spirited teenager named Jason (brilliantly played by Michael Doherty) attends a youth ministry club—that focuses on puppets—run by his recently widowed mother, Margery (Laura Odeh, perfection). Also in the club are the gentle but resourceful Jessica (Carolina Sanchez, wonderful) and Timothy (an excellent Michael McIntire), a confrontational teen punk with a serious case of the hots for Jason’s mom.
Hoping that a church project might help snap Margery out of her grief, pastor Greg (a first-rate David Kelly) has basically forced the puppet club on her. All hell breaks loose, literally, when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, begins exhibiting strong antisocial behavior, dropping f-bombs and brutally escalating observations about Jason, his mother, and the other basement-dwelling “Christ-keteers.”
These outbursts begin gradually, with Tyrone tagging inappropriately sexual comments onto a performance of the famous “Who’s on first?” routine, occasionally reciting vaguely threatening facts: “The smallest of cuts to the Achilles tendon will cripple a man for life!” Before long, though, Jason has to accept the fact that his id-driven puppet just might be Lucifer himself.
As Jason/Tyrone, Doherty is a marvel, pivoting between characters with breathtaking speed and precision. The play goes to some dark places, but the brilliant script and cast never lose their sense of humor and heart, or the story’s commitment to the idea that the things we loathe and fear the most might be closer to home than we prefer to imagine.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½