- Written by Rebecca Evans
- Category: Opening Night with Rebecca Evans
- Published: 28 June 2018
Last weekend, Generic Theater’s latest production, Hand to God, opened in their space under Chrysler Hall. Hand to God premiered Off-Broadway in 2011 and hit Broadway stages in 2015, where it garnered five Tony Award nominations. The play has been described by The New Yorker as “Sesame Street meets the Exorcist.”
Hand to God follows an after-school puppet ministry program in Texas. The teacher, Margery (Sylvie Green Shapero), who recently lost her husband to a heart attack, is welcomed into the church by the smitten Pastor Greg (Brian Nedvin) to lead the program. Her pupils include her awkward son, Jason (Brendan Hoyle), a wannabe Southern playboy, Timmy (Luke Scaros), and the quiet and rebellious Jessica (GinaKay Howell). Jason’s hand puppet eventually takes on a life of its own, and we wonder: has Jason’s arm been possessed by the devil, or is it merely the emergence of his evil alter-ego?
I had never witnessed audiences clapping for set changes until this production. The show features one of the most impressive sets seen at Generic Theater. The program reveals stage elements were repurposed from past productions; units fold to transform a classroom into a car’s interior, and swings descend from the ceiling to make a playground. The soundtrack is also distinct, featuring Deep In the Heart of Texas and a creepy pop rendition of Jesus Loves Me.
Director and scenic designer Matt Friedman assembled a solid cast for the demands of Hand to God. Front and center are Jason and his evil puppet, Tyrone, both played by Brendan Hoyle. Shrinking his shoulders and avoiding eye contact, Hoyle commits to Jason’s awkward physicality from the beginning. He tackles the challenging role with energy and diligence, maneuvering his puppet with grace and hilarity when he becomes Tyrone. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to distinguish between the voices of Jason and Tyrone, especially during fast-paced scenes. Portraying two characters while working a puppet requires intense coordination and focus. Overall, Hoyle does a good, but a laborious job.
Luke Scaros plays Timmy, the troubled boy who seduces Jason’s mother, Margery. His smarmy facial expressions, leisured movements, and vulgar tongue craft a humorous villain. Brian Nedvin paints Pastor Greg as the ultimate “nice guy” with an annoying voice and sense of entitlement. Nedvin reveals new layers in Act II as he tackles Timmy to a desk and commands “pull up your pants and go home” when he learns of Margery and Timmy’s sexual relationship. Another strong actor, GinaKay Howell, is snarky and endearing as Jason’s love interest, Jessica. Jessica comes to Jason’s rescue by distracting Tyrone with a buxom puppet female (named Jolene Robbins) in Act II, and what happens next can’t be unseen.
Sylvie Green Shapero embodies the frantic Margery, tasked with teaching the unruly group to spread the word of Christ through puppets. Although committed, her performance occasionally comes across as melodramatic. More build-up could lend realism to key dramatic moments in the show when Shapero’s screaming fits seem to come out of nowhere. Shapero is best when foiled with Scaros, particularly in their hilarious Act I love scene in which she demands he tear up and eat a Jesus poster as foreplay.
Overall, Hand to God is suitably cast, despite a lack of spark one could see in a production with more seasoned actors. Playwright Robert Askin’s message is absurd and entertaining, albeit not subtle. “All I have to do is say the devil made me do it,” Tyrone proclaims in his opening monologue, begging the following question: without the concepts of good and evil, who would we be and who would we blame?
Generic Theater’s production of Hand to God plays now through July 15. Visit generictheater.org for tickets and more information.