Written by Robert Askins, in 2011 Hand To God premiered Off-Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Several years later, the show had a second run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Then in 2015, the play officially opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. Mainstream critical appreciation for the work quickly followed.
The show scooped Tony Award nominations that season for best play, leading actor (Steven Boyer), leading actress (Geneva Carr), featured actress (Sarah Stiles) and best direction (Moritz von Stuelpnagel).
Askins, it should be known, grew up in a strict, religious community.
Profiled in a recent interview for The Boston Globe, he described himself as ‘an angry, troubled teen with a self-destructive streak’. To further reference that article, the author ‘got drunk, smoked pot, and cut classes.’ It was in college, however, that Askins discovered his passion and gift for playwriting.
Learning these snippets of personal information, Hand To God’s creator clearly draws on his own background as inspiration for the play. Its unusual but original premise, centres on a church – run puppetry club for wayward youth. Chaos quickly ensues, when one of the creatures takes on a dangerous life of its own.
For decades, puppetry has been a live entertainment staple for children. That all changed with recent fare designed strictly for adults, including Jim Henson’s Puppet Up, Thank You For Being A Friend, and of course, Avenue Q.
Unless you possess a little Regan or Damien in the making, this is definitely not a kid’s show. With copious amounts of fake blood, simulated sex and swearing on tap, you have been warned.
Hand To God is a challenge to categorise, and has been described as ‘Sesame Street meets The Exorcist’ and ‘Theatre for the YouTube Generation’. Both reviews are valid. The piece also pulls thematic elements from Heathers, Little Shop Of Horrors, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rules For Living, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, all rolled into one.
Fundamentalist evangelism, creationism and religious hysteria, are notions rarely covered in mainstream theatre. Standout exceptions are the dramas, Inherit The Wind and The Crucible, and more recently, two musicals, Violet, and The Book Of Mormon. Where Askins’ play really pushes the envelope, is by addressing these topics as a scalding comedic expose on family values, the church and its teachings.
The show is presented by the same team that brought the monster hit, Bad Jews (by Joshua Harmon) to Melbourne. Mounted by Aleksandar Vass and Vass Productions, it is easy to see what attracted them to helming Hand To God.
There are definite similarities between both works.
Meaning, nothing and no one are off limits. Grabbing viewers’ attention from the word, ‘go’, each shares an ’off the chain’ electricity between cast members that alone, are worth the price of admission.
Gary Abrahams directs with equal doses of laser focus and outrageous flair. He is no stranger to pacing intricate speech and dialogue, either.
Like his work for Bad Jews, Hand To God has its share of extended monologues. That journey also gave Abrahams heady moments of intense physical interaction to explore and choreograph, accelerated ten – fold in Askins’ farce.
An expert acting quintet brings Hand To God to rich and multifaceted life. Sharing an impressive list of performance credits, each is a brilliant character player in their own right. Furthermore, the group’s collective dynamic is hilarious, yet raw and real at all times.
Abrahams’ ensemble features Allison Whyte (as Margery), Grant Piro (as Pastor Greg), Jake Speer (as Timothy), and Morgana O’Reilly (as Jessica). Led by Gyton Grantley, he takes on the twin roles of Jason and Tyrone.
Such is her unbridled commitment, Whyte’s take reminds me of Amy Adams (from Junebug), Kathleen Turner (from Serial Mom), and Piper Laurie (from Carrie).
Piro plays against type as the creepy minister. Like Patrick Swayze’s gripping presence from the cult classic, Donnie Darko, mixed with The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, it is clear that Piro is enjoying every delicious moment.
Speer channels the quintessential bad boy who would give James Dean’s Jim Stark (from Rebel Without A Cause), Jeremy Lindsay-Taylor’s Shane Mungitt (from MTC’s Take Me Out), and Gary Oldman’s Joe Orton (from Prick Up Your Ears), a thrilling run for their money.
O’Reilly is an angel under the influence. With a strong physical resemblance to Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath (from the HBO series, Girls), combined with Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s Sadie Flood (from Georgia), the sordid underbelly she builds and shares with Grantley’s Jason / Tyrone, particularly in act two, is palpable. (Jacob Williams must be congratulated for his critical input as puppet director.)
In a career-defining revelation, Grantley’s Jason is nothing short of breathtaking. His energy and daring never let up for the entire time. Sharing the show’s key bond with Tyrone, there is always a clear separation between both characters.
Pieces such as Avenue Q or Thank You For Being A Friend, each have the novelty value of puppeteers always in clear view. However, the operators in charge had to be on constant alert, to make sure they never drew focus.
Brent Hill, as Seymour in Little Shop Of Horrors, blew that constraint out of the water. His show’s creative team, had Hill voice Audrey 2, as well. It was a fascinating production choice, where the man – eating plant became a dark extension of Seymour’s character.
As Hand To God’s story unfurls, Tyrone’s sinister grip soon takes hold. One moment in particular, triggers James Corden’s battle with his character’s personal demons, (from the National Theatre Live’s filming of One Man, Two Guvnors). In Grantley’s care, he makes the sequence a physical tour de force.
Without giving anything else away, Hand To God walks that fearless high – wire between social restraint and wild abandonment. It takes viewers to the wackiest corners of the human mind, and back again.
From a technical perspective, excellent voice and accent coaching from Geraldine Cook – Dafner, reinforces the play’s bible – belt, deep south setting.
Robust, two – tiered set design by Jacob Battista, takes full advantage of the venue’s stage. Setting the mood with cheeky irreverence, the show’s colourful classroom layout is spliced up by a series of secondary, prop – driven episodes.
Executed with deceptive simplicity, his elegant work feels like a wicked variation on Roald Dahl’s Matlida. Tessa Robinson adds fine visual support as scenic artist, with set construction by Just Imagine’s Justin Green and Colin Orchard.
Their vision is matched by Chloe Greaves’ bright costuming, which inform both the characters and viewers alike. Thanks to Greaves’ devil in the details, it has to be said that the sock puppets present a constant threat of stealing the show.
Creating a strong balance to Ian Moorhead’s twisted sound composition, Amelia Lever Davidson’s and Nick Glen’s mood lighting is always on point. (Lighting operation is by Bao Ghislain and Jai Leeworthy).
Douglas Brook is responsible for Hand To God’s smooth production management. Seamless stage management duties are shared by Whitney McNamara, Millie Mulliner and Julia Orlando.
Perhaps an indication of the show’s impact, is how the opening night celebrity audience applauded each and every scene. In my eight years of reviewing for Theatre People, this response speaks volumes.
Playing for a strictly – limited season until Sunday March 18, Hand To God is destined to become the cult sensation of the season. Catch it while you can.