In the basement beneath a church in Cypress, Texas, there is a puppeteer group rehearsing. A gaggle of teenagers are muddling their way through questions of identity, sexuality, and religion. Margery is trying to keep this group together, but the puppets are gaining a mind of their own. This is Hand to God.
Written by Robert Askins, Hand to God first hit Broadway in the States in 2015. It is a work written from deeply personal experiences, Askins having been one of those very teenagers coerced into spending afternoons learning puppetry beneath a church, while simultaneously struggling with self-destructive tendencies. Now, thanks to Aleksander Vass and Vass Productions, Hand to God has reached Australia’s shores, and will premiere here in Melbourne under the direction of Gary Abrahams. The black comedy started out off-Broadway in independent theatres, and Vass aims to provide the same open space yet again for a show that at times could be too risqué for the big theatres to delve into.
Hand to God wastes no time in establishing that it is a show bursting with subversive stories and sly humour. Questions of desire and relationships between adults and teenagers, between teenagers and teenagers, and between widows and priests are all laid bare as the play begins. In this tight nit, religious community, what and how answers are to be found to such questions, one can only imagine.
Vass Productions have wrangled a strong and competent cast for this diabolical delight of a play, holding off staging until they could confirm their preferred performers. This patience has already paid off, as the cast has very quickly and proficiently adopted the new challenges of performing with puppets at (and on) hand. Jumping in to the role of the strange and stagnating Pastor Greg is the enigmatic Grant Piro, bringing over three decades of performance experience along with him. Holding the puppeteers together as the recently widowed Margery is the wonderfully dynamic and highly accomplished Alison Whyte, whose skill and passion shines through clearly as she easily transforms into a hardworking, god fearing Texan.
Jake Speer, an energetic young actor with a rich performance background, brings alive the character Timothy, a teen who remains in the puppeteer group for unexpected reasons of the heart. Alongside Timothy is Jessica, performed by the talented Morgana O’Reilly. This casting is sure to bring an interesting edge to the stage, as O’Reilly performs a young woman who is far from fragile and will not stand by silently. Lastly, with the doubly challenging role of both Jason, Margery’s sweet and confused son, and his possessed, devilish puppet Tyrone, is Gyton Grantley, who is enthusiastically returning to the theatre after several years spent focusing on film and television.
The rehearsal process has been a hard and fast one, the cast working with voice and puppet coaches to bring this pocket of the bible belt alive at the Alex Theatre. Gary Abrahams has teased out the many taboos in Hand to God in such a way that the cast are confident in who their characters represent, and how they fit into their little world in Cypress, Texas. Every day the quirks and contradictions of each church member have blossomed and been bolstered by Abraham’s deft direction. He believes Melbourne is the right place to stage Hand to God, with audiences that are willing to expose themselves to subversive humour and challenging themes.
This is set to be a cheeky show full of ‘adult’ content – we are told very honestly to not bring the kids. But it will undoubtedly be fascinating to watch the kids on stage figure out how messy being an adult is, and how adults can often return to childlike instincts. When wading into the depths of irreverent humour and dabbling with the puritan ethic, one must have confidence and a relevant context. In the basement beneath a small-town church, it seems Hand to God will provide the exact right setting, and an appropriate number of puppets.
Hand to God opens Saturday 24th of February, with an Auslan interpreted show on Saturday 10th of March.