Hand to God
Ensemble Studio Theater
Think of some associations with the left hand – it’s emotive, a portal to the unconscious, an icon of sex magic, and sinister. There you have Tyrone – the sock puppet who is, along with his desperate handler and alter ego, Jason (actor Steven Boyer) — the voice of playwright Robert Askins. And what a voice it is! Askins is very angry, and very funny, and has devised cunning ways to use his sock puppets to get even.
Unlike the creators of The Book of Morman who claimed their subject by proximity: “We grew up in Colorado..so Mormanism was right next door,” Askins is the real thing. He covered the sock puppet beat as a child in the Christian Puppet Ministries of Waco, Texas and has things to say on the topic and the fearful conflicts it creates while teaching children about absolute right and wrong.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has added some gleeful comic sauce to Askins’ script and, with a tireless cast of five who take no prisoners, keeps it all working, all the time. The humor is imaginative, raunchy, mostly black and often physical, poised right on the edge of farce. Long-simmering repression gives way to vigorous (and hilarious) carnality. Even the puppets (there are eventually two who get into the act) ratchet up the laughter as they go at it. And if you think that sock puppet sex might not be as compelling as the real thing, think again — and thank puppet designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen.
Everyone on stage is marvelous, but special kudos must go to Steven Boyer, who uses two voices and a lot of complicated puppetry (wires and gestures) to manipulate Tyrone seamlessly throughout the story. It is Tyrone’s opening monologue that gives us clues as to what’s on the table for the evening: “When I have acted badly, in order to stay around the campfire, all I have to do is say….the devil made me do it.”
In Hand to God, the devil is literally everwhere, especially in the Puppet Ministry and in the barely-controlled libido of its leader, Margery (the unnerving Geneva Carr), her son, Jason, his classmates (Meagan Hill and Bobby Moreno), and even their clueless pastor (Scott Sowers). Things begin to unravel early on, but there’s lots of room for the wool to be rewoven in surprising ways.
As Tyrone asserts at the end of the play, “You just can’t keep the devil down. Which is why somebody invented Jesus…Maybe someday we won’t need a savior. But I doubt it. The thing about a Jesus is you never know where to look. Might just be the place you saw the devil before.”
The Ensemble Studio Theatre has been celebrating collaborative work since 1968. With plays and casts like Hand to God, it’s not hard to see why. EST for tickets, schedules and season.
Tags: ensemble studio theater