By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A crazed orange creature with wispy, fly-away hair verbally assaults and wounds everyone in his path. No, we’re not referring to a current presidential contender, but an ornery puppet named Tyrone in Robert Askins’ “Hand to God.” The perfidious possibly-possessed puppet can be found at the end of arm of Jason (Nick LaMedica), an assuming young lad going through an awkward stage. A very awkward stage! Jason is using his puppet as a security blanket. He doesn’t even like removing the puppet from his hand. Together, though, they’re a formidable team. Jason plays straight man to Tyrone’s more boisterous personality. The timid teen is the Abbott to Tyrone’s Costello in the hilariously famous “Who’s on First” sketch. Unfortunately, Tyron is the Hyde to Jason’s Jekyll when the puppet goes rogue!
Tyrone is technically a Muppet because his arms are articulated by drawstrings. But is he evil? Ay, there’s the rub.
It all begins, innocently enough, inside a church basement at Puppet Club. A hapless widow, Margery (Lisa Velten Smith), wrestles with her teen students, Timothy (Michael Greer), Jessica (Maggie Carr) and her son Jason. Margery’s having a tough time since her husband’s death. It doesn’t help that her students don’t seem to respect and like each other. She can’t seem to exert any sort of control over them. She’s starting to become aware of her son’s increasing involvement with the plush character on the boy’s arm. She’s also realizing it’s not a problem she can solve with FroYo.
But Margery is caught up in her own drama. Her most troubled student, Timothy, professes his love for her, and Pastor Greg (Tim McGeever) also wants to fill the space on her dance card. She claims she’s not ready for a relationship, but when an opportunity arises for a meaningless fling, she goes for it in a big, inappropriate way. In the church basement!
Meanwhile, Tyrone is making the Bad Idea Bears from “Avenue Q” look like innocent, little scamps.
“Hand to God” is laugh-out -loud funny. The action is played as deadly serious. The characters in the show believe in the dire consequences of their actions, which heightens the humor. Brava to director Tracy Brigden to play the comedy for the drama and not just for the laughs. The emotions in the show are honestly felt (pun always intended). She’s also cast some brilliant actors.
LaMedica is marvelous as he alternates back and forth from mild and meek Jason to the bold and brash Tyrone. He is reminiscent of Jay Johnson’s Chuck and Bob from the television show “Soap,” if Bob was evil instead of just mischievous.
Margery is a ball of confusion; a pile of emotional wreckage on two, long legs. She is masterfully played by Smith. Holy schadenfreude! It’s a joy to watch Margery suffer, mostly because Smith wrings out every morsel of pain and anger from the character with big, dramatic flair and turns it into comedic gold. Her interactions with Greer and McGeever are outstanding. It helps that she has strong actors to play with.
Each character gets a moment to shine, and the cast is up for the challenge. LaMedica and Carr have an amazing scene together where the audience flat-out loses it. I assumed some of them were going to need medical attention. Oxygen to aisle FF. Stat!
The action plays out on another one of Tony Ferrieri’s brilliantly designed sets. This one is like a Rubik’s Cube, with interlocking pieces such as a church basement, a playground, and a pastor’s office.
It’s always a little difficult to notice the costume designer’s work in a contemporary setting where everyone is wearing jeans and t shirts, but Tracy Christensen does some outstanding work here. She gives Greer a 90s grunge look that makes him completely different from his off-stage persona. Also, it appears that Christensen dressed Carr in Margot Robbie’s hand-me-downs, leftover from her summer blockbuster “Suicide Squad.” Carr is rocking the whole Harley Quinn look, down to the bleached hair with blue highlights.
“Hand to God” is a straight-up rollicking evening. Word of warning: don’t take your grandma unless she swears like a longshoreman. The play is hilarious, but it’s not for the easily offended. It’s rife with sacrilegious words and imagery. This puppet show isn’t for kids, but it’s for the adults who love a good time. Let’s give a big hand for “Hand to God.”
“Hand to God” runs from September 24 to October 16 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.