Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”
Sigmund Freud, from “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,” 1932
There are soliloquies. There are asides. These are two dramatic conventions that allow the audience to know what an actor is thinking and feeling without the other actors on stage knowing. And now there is Tyrone the sock puppet who turns out to be the darker side of his puppeteer Jason (Steven Boyer) for whom things have not been going so well since the death of his father. Jason fashioned Tyrone for his weekly participation in his mother Margery’s (Geneva Carr) Christian puppet ministry. In that setting with fellow teens Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and Jessica (Sarah Stiles), Tyrone begins to find his own voice – or is it really the voice of Jason’s id slowly gaining the upper hand over his ego and superego? This is the stuff of the brilliant and sometimes shockingly disturbing “Hand to God” currently running at the Booth Theatre.
Jason has not been able to find his voice for most of his childhood and adolescence. He has been the model son, the model Christian teen, the model student; however, no one has ever really bothered to know Jason, the boy attempting to separate and individuate from his parents and attain adulthood. That Jason needs a spokesperson and Tyrone is ready and willing to step up to the challenge potty-mouth and all.
Like truth and honesty, Tyrone has teeth that can rip off and ear or inflict other blood-letting damage. And like truth and honesty, Tyrone can turn the sweetest Sunday School room into the sullied sanctuary scene in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Truth will have out and ultimately the truth sets Jason and his mother free. But not before their conflicts draw Timothy, Jessica, and Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) into the maelstrom of their considerable malaise. Both the good pastor and young Timothy are madly in love with Jason’s mom and although Pastor Greg’s advances go unrequited, Timothy and Margery have an unexpected and prolonged tryst. Unresolved fears, unrecognized projection and transference all contribute to the meltdown of this unintentional extended family and “Hand to God” is a brilliant extended metaphor of mythic proportions deftly directed by Moritz Stuelpnagel and performed by the engaging ensemble cast.
Steven Boyer handles his two roles with considerable craft. As he switches between Jason and Jason’s alter ego Tyrone, it is clear his character Jason is trying to find his place in his family, in his community, and in his world. Geneva Carr’s Margery is a tinder box of repressed emotion and Ms. Carr gives her character authenticity and dignity in distress. Marc Kudisch portrays Pastor Greg as a lonely and dedicated church pastor who isn’t quite ready to handle Margery’s refusal of his advances or Tyrone’s devilish assault on his Sunday School. Michael Oberholtzer plays Timothy, a teen remanded to the puppet practice but more interested Jason’s mother than fashioning a sock puppet. And Sarah Stiles as Jessica is Jason’s friend who refuses to give up on him and enables him to reach a cathartic frenzy in one of the most hilarious extended puppet sex scenes imaginable.
At the beginning of the play, Tyrone outlines his “theology” of the fall of humankind. Blaming the one responsible for inventing camping for humans (as opposed to living in a solitary state), the one who invented the categories of right and wrong and the one who introduced the concept of the devil, Tyrone laments the repression of all things “bad.” Tyrone does his best to rattle the cages of Jason’s ego strength and gain the upper hand. This is not unlike Sigmund Freud’s observation. “The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and it has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three…The three tyrants are the external world, the superego, and the id.” Sigmund Freud, from “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,” (1932). With his mother’s unconditional love and Jessica’s non-judgmental love, Jason finds his true voice – not Tyrone’s – and embarks on a journey of “figuring out” how to move forward to a place of psychological integration.
“Hand to God” is a psychological thriller easily confused for a bawdy burlesque. Whether the audience chooses to swim unaided by water wings through Jason’s weltanschauung or simply revel in the antics of the prurient puppet shenanigans, the rewards are bountiful and no audience member will look at a sock puppet in quite the same way ever again. Nor will the audience member ever look at the discussion of right and wrong without a healthy dose of moral ambiguity in tow.