Tall Tales: "Hand To God,” A Review

“Hand to God” now up at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company through December 17, 2016. Tickets here. Our Denver theater critic, award-winning author Mark Stevens, reviews the production.

Tyrone wakes up Jason. Courtesy, Curious Theatre Company.

Tyrone wakes up Jason. Courtesy, Curious Theatre Company.

“Hand to God” thrives on the good side of outrageous. It’s juicy and meaty. It’s absurd and wickedly funny. It tackles—and throttles— big issues like organized religion, morality, and myth-making. It’s provocative, in case that’s not already apparent.

It’s also possible you might be offended. However, if you made it through the 2016 campaign for president, your ears should be de-sensitized by now. The two older women who sat next to me were the hardest-laughing members of the audience on opening night. “I love this play,” one of them said at intermission.

As performed by the Curious Theatre Company (through December 17), Robert Askins’ “Hand to God” fairly crackles. The setting is a church in Texas. The principle scenes play out in a multi-purpose community room with blue walls and inspirational posters. The room might be used for daycare during church service, that kind of a place.

Five characters make up the cast. There’s mother Margery and her teenage son Jason. Margery heads the church’s youth group, hard at work on the church’s puppet ministry. (Yes, this is a thing that happens in some churches; I looked it up.)  Jason, meek and brooding at first, is a member of the youth group along with the uppity, back-talking Timothy and the quiet, somewhat submissive Jessica. The fifth member of the cast is Pastor Greg.

As for the humans, that’s it.

But there’s one more character. His name is Tyrone.

“Hand to God” is Tyrone’s show. He’s the id, the ego, the unfiltered, foul-mouthed monster who has found a host (Jason) to call out hypocrisy and pour chunks of salt in raw, gaping wounds. And he’s not lacking for targets.

And, yes, Tyrone is a sock puppet. He lives on the end of Jason’s right hand (hands and touching are a persistent theme). At first, Jason hides a bit behind Tyrone’s tendency toward blunt talk. Before long, Tyrone is saying things that Jason wishes he could say. Or maybe Tyrone is instantly verbalizing whatever insta-thought pops into Jason’s head. Tyrone lays waste. He could give master classes in retort. Once the play gets rolling, he’s in full-scorch attack mode.

But it’s not only Tyrone who is out of control. Playwright Robert Askins is an equal opportunity distributor of mayhem. Margery, who first rebuffs the advances of Pastor Greg, comes unglued under the increasingly aggressive declarations of passion from Timothy (yes, the troublesome teenage member of the youth group). Margery has been trying to keep the lid on her emotions after the recent death of her husband and all the associated financial pressures. Once the lid pops, she channels her own inner Tyrone and she, well, no spoilers here. Margery’s troubles lead to an increasingly agitated pastor and soon, well, Tyrone has grown teeth and there are real wounds and squirting blood. And then Jessica dons a hand puppet and pretty soon there’s full-blown puppet sex happening right there on the stage and the audience is in near tears, especially as straight-faced Jason and Jessica keep talking as if all is normal. Hilarious.

Tyrone may have his head on Jason’s digits, but he’s gone full Exorcist or Alien and taken full control of his host.

The play requires impeccable timing from all six players. John Hauser (Jason and Tyrone) handles one third of the parts himself and pulls off the rapid-fire dialogue and physical action with ease. Tara Falk plays Margery with a searing intensity. She goes from helpful church lady to volcano of emotions. Falk leaves nothing behind. The play asks for plenty from John Jurchek (Timothy), Jenna Moll Reyes (Jessica) and Michael McNeill (Pastor Greg) and they all deliver sharp performances. Jurchek is lanky, mocking and a perfect jerk. Jurchek’s Timothy is a sort of precursor warm-up act to Tyrone and Timothy soon meets his match. McNeill plays Pastor Greg with a fine vanilla sanctimony. He’s a harmless uncle until he’s not.

“Hand to God” is directed by Dee Covington with razor sharp timing and an eye and ear tuned for shock mode, with the assistance of fight choreographer Jenn Zubowski.

There’s a final bit of puppetry (Cory Gilstrap) that is a grabber. Lighting and sound are typical Curious Theatre Company work. That is, terrific.

What’s it all about, Tyrone? I’m not sure I know. It’s about repression and the power of myth-making and how the Christian church started with animal sacrifice? And something about true human nature. And the hypocrisy of organized religion? The message, if it’s there, is splattered around by a Mix Master with razor blades. But I don’t think Askins was aiming for your brain cells; he was going after your viscera. And succeeds.

“Hand to God” is a must-see.

Almost literally, holy smokes.  

More about Mark Stevens:

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent.

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts, but he’s been a Coloradoan since 1980.

Mark has worked as a print reporter, ((Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News), national news television producer, (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour) and school district communicator. He’s now laboring in the new economy, listed under “s” for self-employed public relations exec.

Mark has published three Colorado-based mysteries, “Antler Dust”(2007), “Buried by the Roan” (2011) and “Trapline” (2014). He is under contract for a fourth book in the series.

For more about Mark, check out his website.

 

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Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s a print reporter, national news television producer and school district communicator. He’s now working in the new economy and listed under “s” for self-employed. Stevens has published two Colorado-based mysteries, Antler Dust (2007) and Buried by the Roan (2011). The third book in the Allison Coil Mystery Series is under production and tentatively slated for release in 2013.

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