Puppets Play with People in “œHand to God“ at the Incline

Review by Blair Godshall of “œHand to God“: Incline Theatre

The play “œHand to God“ could be described as a dysfunctional family drama/teenager coping with angst saga/angry satire on Christianity/ horror movie/ raunchy comedy/ puppet show. All these elements coexist like a cat fight you can“™t stop watching in Robert Askins“™ script, now playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre. 

Puppetry is the show“™s signature but it“™s not as similar to“œAvenue Q“ as you might think. I was expecting every actor to have a puppet but it“™s not the case here. Both this play and “œAvenue Q“ contain “œR“ rated adult humor so don“™t bring the kids. Manipulated principally and masterfully by the hilarious Alexander Slade (who plays unhappy teen Jason), the all-too-animated puppet Tyrone is the show“™s most compelling character. The mild-mannered Jason“™s uncontrolled, raging, teenage alter-ego, Tyrone, curses, threatens, intimidates, seduces, and physically attacks other characters. His self-image is that of well“¦ Satan himself. 

Slade does a marvelous job, not only of manipulating the puppet physically but in switching seamlessly between Jason“™s younger, more tentative voice, and Tyrone“™s lower-pitched growl. Playing two characters (or two manifestations of the same character) is no easy task, and Slade is more than up to it. I was really impressed with his performance and ability to lure the audience in. Jessica (Hope Pauly) plays a sweet girl who has a crush on Jason. I won“™t give anything away, but her character surprised me the most.

Jason“™s family is in crisis. His father recently died, apparently of overeating, and his mother, Margery (Karie Gipson), a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown with an appetite for rough sex, is nearly always out of control. Her character begins at a high level of anxious intensity and stays there throughout the play giving her a one-dimensional feel. 

The most ambiguous character is Greg (Brian Anderson), the pastor of the church in which Margery and the teenagers participate in a puppet ministry (yes, you read that right). We first see him in a cringe-worthy, uncomfortable attempt to romance Margery, then later he seems to want to help the others through their difficulties, but I still can“™t get past the character“™s creepiness. 

Timothy (Jack Kremer) plays the role of a total jerk with great believability where everyone in the audience will want to take a swipe at him, but they won“™t because the other characters in the play do it for us. Timothy wants only one thing and finds it in a hilarious scene for which director Dylan Shelton deserves praise and a high-five for staging (you“™ll know exactly what I“™m referring to when you see the play). 

The technical aspects of the production are well executed. Brett Bowling“™s set is a convincing reproduction of a church basement/room, complete with religious posters and cheap furniture (notably the beanbag chairs). The set serves a variety of functions but some of the set changes slow the play“™s pace at times. This is a props-heavy show, and designer Caren Brady provides a nice collection of Bibles, plastic toys, pictures, bookcases, etc., many of which are abused from the characters“™ emotional wildness. 

The lighting/sound designer (Denny Reed) memorably changesthe lighting to dramatic red when Tyrone is at his most devilish and there is a nice effect when Timothy puts out one of the lights in the church basement but my question then is, how does a lightbulb come back on if it was broken? Smaller sound effects, such as a car door closing when Jason gets out of Margery“™s car, are well coordinated with the action.

Like I mentioned before, this is not a play for children, so don“™t let the puppets fool you into thinking otherwise (those little devils; no pun intended). Additionally, it more than pokes fun at organized Christian religions and many will find it to be sacrilegious, so you can“™t say I didn“™t warn you. For all the hilarity, it“™s a pretty dark play and yet, audiences will relate to the play“™s over-the-top humor and connection to the struggles of a troubled young man. The elusive Tyrone starts and ends the show as a foul-mouthed lecturer on the history and sociology of religion. He might be a kind of external demonic force as well as the voice of Jason“™s anger, grief, and frustration, but Askins refrains from providing easy answers.

Hand to God plays at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre
Jan. 23-Feb. 9 [East Price Hill]   For tickets, call the theater at 513-241-6550 or go here: http://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/Incline/News.aspx

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