Review By Lisa Lanzi
Adelaide University Theatre Guild has delivered another excellent production with Hand To God. If you enjoy sardonic dark humour, irony, layers of meaning, and aren’t fussed by simulated sex and violence plus a few (many) F-bombs, this is the show for you.
Inspired by his Lutheran upbringing in religiously conservative Cypress, Texas, playwright Robert Askins wrote the play in 2011 and first produced it off Broadway in 2011 and 2014. Upon moving to Broadway in 2015, the production received five Tony Award nominations. Askins is also responsible for the writing on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, which makes total sense as Hand To God unfolds with vibrant, sassy and succinct dialogue and soliloquy.
A wonderful cast has been assembled, with mostly impeccable American accents, who are able to wholly draw attention to the somewhat unhinged action and transport the audience from the prosaic surrounds of The Little Theatre into a rundown church basement and other scenes. This small, flexible space works beautifully for many productions, including this one, however it is not the most salubrious theatre in Adelaide. Direction from Nick Fagan is tight and professional and the pace is excellent with the dialogue and narrative zooming along, as it should.
Matt Houston eloquently performs the gormless central character of Jason while concurrently voicing Tyrone, a sock puppet firmly attached to his right hand. Houston’s gifted vocal range shifts effortlessly from the slight whine of a teenage male to the more guttural, profane vernacular emanating from Tyrone; so well in fact it is easy to forget the two distinct characters stem from just one actor. Emily Branford is Jason’s beleaguered mom Margery, her life knocked off-centre by the death of her husband only six months ago. Branford gives us a clear portrait of this troubled woman both vocally and with emphatic and creative physicality, while delivering the comedic moments with ease and subtlety. Both characters are victims of circumstance and grief, their subversive ‘acting out’ through anger or promiscuity a result of conservative repression of deep emotions.
The two other ‘puppet club’ teens are expertly brought to life by Tom Tassone and Laura Antoniazzi. Tassone’s bully-boy Timothy is a great synthesis of testosterone-fuelled young man juxtaposed with a frightened boy expected to ‘grow up’ and behave as he flirts unashamedly with Margery. Antoniazzi gives us a sweet-tempered Jessica who seems to be the ‘fixer’ in the space, and possibly the most well-adjusted character in this farce. Her scene with Houston and their two lust-driven puppets is a highlight amongst many fine theatrical moments here and showcases both actors’ brilliance. I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued during rehearsals, but additionally applaud the effort the performers have made for the puppetry to work so well that the audience accepted totally the existence of these constructs.
Pastor Greg, performed with sparkling energy and affection by Brendan Cooney, is a reminder of the hypocrisy we sometimes find within religious situations as well as the artifice you might observe within fundamentalist church practices. Basically a good person, Pastor Greg is torn between his own needs (an attraction to Margery) and the demands of his faith and position. Cooney grants the character a vitality and positivity that tends to crack under pressure. Pastor Greg’s wholly text book responses to questions and problems tend to remind me of Margaret Atwood’s sycophants in The Handmaid’s Tale: “Have a blessed day” is his salutation to a mother at the end of her tether.
Hand To God deals with the consequences of suppressed grief, loss, impotent rage, adolescent insecurities, loneliness, frustration, and hypocrisies of all sorts but under cover of wicked, sometimes vengeful comedy. The play throws so many societal conventions ‘under the bus’ that the audience’s hilarity is sometimes tainted with unease, such is the intricate relationship between pain and laughter. The concept of a teen being possessed by his own id in the form of a demonic, vulgar, truth-telling sock puppet is a brilliant way to highlight the tragedy beneath.
Bravo Nick Fagan and the Theatre Guild creatives for staging a successful SA premiere of Hand To God. Support local and GO.SEE.IT!
Image Credit: Richard Parkhill