“Hand to God”



TheaterWorks is currently presenting a hilarious and gloriously unhinged production of Robert Askins’ gleefully twisted play, “Hand to God.”  With an expert comedic cast of five, including the truly gifted Nick La Medica, in the leading role, who is amazing as both an actor and a puppeteer, this show is something of a laugh-riot from beginning to end, though it can also become unexpectedly subversive.

“Hand to God” enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway a few years ago and it proves to be a natural for regional theatre.  I did not see this play in New York, but it’s hard to imagine that it could possibly be funnier than TheaterWorks’ presentation of this work.  A word of warning: “Hand to God” is most definitely not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.  Everyone else should leave this production having laughed themselves silly.

Right from the start of the play, one gets the sense that “Hand to God” is going to be quite an unusual evening of theater.  Indeed, the first thing the audience sees is a hand puppet talking specifically about the creation of man and the process of evolution.  This opening scene also contains quite a number of expletives, which sets one up for exactly what kind of show “Hand to God” is going to be.

Not to give too much away, but puppets figure hugely into the plot, and they make the foul-mouthed puppet characters in “Avenue Q” look like Mother Goose.  Actually, this play focuses specifically on a demonic puppet, named Tyrone, who could truly give Linda Blair from “The Exorcist” a run for her money.

The story of “Hand to God” is basically simple.  It involves a woman named Margery (the hysterically frenzied Lisa Velten Smith) who leads a class on puppeteering at the local church, with the hopes of putting on a puppet show.  To say that these plans get sidetracked is putting it mildly.  Indeed, nothing in this show is quite what you think it will be, which, somehow, makes “Hand to God” even funnier and crazier than one could ever imagine.

Director Tracy Brigden has done a knockout job staging this show and she is blessed with a perfect cast.  As mentioned, Lisa Velten Smith does a great job playing Margery, the teacher in the church, and she undergoes more than a bit of dizzying behavior, leading to a comic nervous breakdown in the second act that, alone, would be worth the price of admission.  As the only other adult character in the play, Pastor Greg, Peter Benson is also something of a scream, but in a much quieter way.  Having seen Benson shine in a variety of Broadway musicals, it’s nice to see this actor in a straight play, and he is just as good here as I have ever seen him before.

Portraying two of Margery’s students, Jessica and Timmy, Maggie Carr and Miles G. Jackson, respectively, are a riot and they completely submerse themselves into the wacked out world the playwright has created in “Hand to God,” truly leaving no stone unturned in the series of increasingly bizarre and hysterical scenes this play presents.  Still, if there is one actor who truly shines above the rest, it would be the outstanding Nick LaMedica, as Margery’s son Jason.

As it happens, this performer also acts as the puppeteer to the unspeakably evil and sadistic hand puppet, Tyrone.  In the scenes near the conclusion of “Hand to God,” LaMedica simultaneously enacts both Jason and Tyrone in a truly bravura turn, managing to convincingly (and, seemingly, effortlessly) create two completely different personas onstage, in some of the most surreal and insane moments in the show.

“Hand to God,” at TheaterWorks, can certainly be recommended to those who are game, and the audience I saw this show with completely ate it up.  That said, this play is most certainly not for all tastes, particularly to those most offended by explicit language and scenes of vivid (if hilarious) displays of violent behavior.

All of the designers in “Hand to God” should be saluted, with the biggest shout-outs to puppet designer Stephanie Shaw and the amazing projections supplied by Luke Cantarella, who has also provided the terrific turn-table scenic design for “Hand to God,” which works ideally for this show.  To put it simply, “Hand to God” is quite unlike anything you have seen before, and, for those willing to go with it, this show offers one truly wild and devilishly funny ride.

“Hand to God” continues performances at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through August 26, 2018.  For tickets, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.

Photo: Nick LaMedica

Photo by Lanny Nagler

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