If seeing, hearing or reading about the musical Avenue Q didn’t convince you that puppets are not just cute, lovable or educational creations devised by well-meaning artists, Robert Askins’ Hand to God, now onstage in Florida Studio Theatre’s Stage III season at its Bowne’s Lab Theatre, should do the trick.
Askins’ main puppet here is Tyrone, and he sets up the show for us from a puppet stage, giving us his view of the history of humanity and touching on the play of the devil before moving aside to make room for the humans here. Those humans include troubled teen Jason (Harrison Bryan, who also voices and manipulates Tyrone), his widowed mother Margery (Brenny Rabine), the girl he has a crush on, Jessica (Jessica Mosher), the pastor of their church (Drew Hirshfield) and another teen, Timmy (Tom Patterson), who has an alcoholic mother and inappropriate longings for Margery.
They’re all brought together in the basement of a church in the small town of Cypress, Texas, where Pastor Greg has asked Margery to take charge of a puppet program, partly to give her something to take her mind off her husband’s death and partly because, well, puppet ministries are a real thing. The program isn’t going too well, though; and sweet-natured Jason soon begins acting out his real, secret feelings through that green, bug-eyed, foul-mouthed creature at the end of his arm.
Jason actually frightens himself with some of the things the evil-appearing Tyrone says and does, so much so that he rips the guy apart. But, in the throes of her own grief, his mother can’t fully understand what Jason’s dealing with. Things go from bad to worse when Pastor Greg also reveals his attraction to her. She’s conflicted, all right.
Jessica seems the most likely to help Jason with his Tyrone issue, although the way she goes about it—involving a female puppet with breasts and a raunchy scene of simulated puppet sex (yep, they go there)—may not be in any counseling handbook. It’s better than what Jason’s getting from the adults, though.
Sex, violence, profanity—you name it, it’s in Hand to God. But there actually is also a sense of truth here; otherwise it’s unlikely the piece would have received critical praise and Tony nominations back in 2015, including one for Best New Play. These people are suffering (Jessica less so than the others) and they are in need of help. But they also need to realize they must ask for it.
Under the direction of Jason Cannon, the cast handles the often outrageous and even bloody comedy of Hand to God with energy and a lot of flair. But, especially in the case of Bryan and Rabine, they also make us care about their characters. Bryan’s skill at switching back and forth between Jason and Tyrone, vocally, physical and emotionally, is impressive; he must be worn out by the end of each performance. And Rabine conveys Margery’s confusion and guilt while at the same time being very funny, especially in her sex scenes with Timmy.
Hand to God won’t be for everyone, for sure. But if you’re ready for Askins’ very different approach to visiting a grieving family through some flat-out comedy, the show continues through Feb. 8. For tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.