By Tulis McCall
I grew up on Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Two hand puppets on a Neapolitan puppet stage, with one human to mix things up. Kukla was a sort of sweet clown character. Fran was Fran. And Ollie was a one-toothed dragon. He flirted and moaned and suffered and beseached. If Ollie had dropped acid, he would have been Tyrone, the miserable tyrant who rules the life of Jason (Steven Boyer). Robert and Jason are sharing the stage, and mixing up their personalities in Hand To God , by Robert Askins. According to his short article in Playbill this month, this is the 12th play Askins has written. The job that pays the bills at the moment is bar tending. I foresee this changing in the very near future.
Askins is a twisted cruller of a writer. He is macabre and funny. Foul mouthed and fragile. Innocent and devious. A Texan for certain… In the small town of Cypress, there is a church where Margery (Geneva Carr) has been taken on staff by the minister, Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) to teach a puppetry class to the misfits of the town. Her husband recently died and she is a wreck. She is mourning and very, very angry because life is pretty shitty. She adds her son to the class because she needs a another butt in a chair. She also needs some moral support and hopes he will give it to her. But Jason is incapable of moral support because he is in his own dilemma. The most he can do is build a sock puppet – Tyrone – through whom he can speak. The other two students in the class, Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and Jessica (Sarah Stiles) are there to bait one another and run over Jason with either sympathy or disgust. Take your pick.
Jason has become so attached to Tyrone that he will not remove it from his hand unless he himself is bathing or swimming. Tyrone is an inanimate fellow on Jason’s hand until he is not. Sitting on the swing set with Jessica he tells her everything that Jason is thinking – or that he is lusting. Jason cannot stop him. Later that night on the way home Margery deposits Jason on the side of the road because he is refusing to give her the TLC she needs. He rips Tyrone apart and walks home.
That night Tyrone returns, swans up and ready for World Domination, To watch Boyer work with his hand/rod puppet is a thing of wonder. Yes we can see his lips move, but it is Tyrone who scoops our eyes over to his menacing mug. It is Tyrone who is running the show. He depends on Jason for his life. And he will do ANYTHING to keep the symbiosis in tact. This includes physical as well as verbal abuse. He nearly catapults himself across entire rooms, dragging Jason behind him, on more than one occasion. There is no need to suspend your disbelief. You just buckle up your seat belts and hang on.
In another part of the woods, old Margery is being seduced by both Timothy and the good Reverend. Margery herself is a sandwich or two shy of the Stability Picnic, and watching Carr flip flop between letting her libido run wild and tamping down male expectations is no less than hilarious. Carr treads the fine line between madness and magic with abandon.
Things come to a head as Jason and Tyrone lock themselves into the classroom and change the decor from Jesus to Just-This-Side-of-Devil-Worship. Forces must unite to take them down, but it is the wily Jessica who knows how to get to them. And THAT is a scene that will make your head explode.
The play ends with some unexpected, unnecessary and unexpected violence. We are bumped off the apple cart along with Tyrone it seems. Odd and illogical. Almost as if no one could figure out the ending so they just tossed this out and wrapped things up. The last scene is, however, a pit stop on what was otherwise a wild and breathtaking ride into a land that I can pretty much guarantee no one in the audience knew existed.
Is that not the very purpose of theatre? To take us out of ourselves, let us wander around in a new territory and return to our seats, modified on a molecular level. I say yes to that.
The title remains a mystery. As far as I can tell it is a way of swearing that something is true. But I think I can hear Tyrone’s voice critiquing the humanity’s evolution and blaming it on The Almighty, saying And let’s give a hand to God for changing us from peaceful animals into beings who hand out Wright And Wrong Decrees as if they knew their asses from a hole in the ground. Let’s give a hand to God for that.
All that needs to be done here is to give Tyrone the courtesy of a curtain call.
By Robert Askins; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Sydney Maresca; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; puppet design by Marte Johanne Ekhougen; fight director, Robert Westley; production supervisor, Brian Lynch; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons; general manager, Corker Group LLC; company manager, Brig Berney; associate producer, Lucas McMahon. Presented by Kevin McCollum, Broadway Global Ventures, CMC, Morris Berchard, Mariano V. Tolentino Jr., Stephanie Kramer, LAMS Productions, DeSimone/Winkler, Joan Raffe and Jhett Tolentino, Timothy Laczynski, Lily Fan, Ayal Miodovnik, JAM Theatricals, Ensemble Studio Theater and MCC Theater. At the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, handtogodbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours.