Hand to God (Alex) – theatre review

Push The Book of Mormon over a cliff and mix in an unhealthy dose of Avenue Q and you go some way to describing the irreverence that is Hand to God.

A puppet practice workshop in a church gets shanghaied by the devil and it’s only a matter of time before proceedings spiral totally out of control. Forget Christian values, think sexual abandon and wanton brutality. This is a show requiring a broad-minded approach.

Photo: Angel Leggas

Written by Robert Askins, the play was produced off-Broadway in 2011 and 2014. It went on-Broadway in 2015, and received five Tony Award nominations, including for Best New Play.

Margery (Alison Whyte) lives in the tiny, conservative town of Cypress, Texas. She’s a widow, her husband having recently passed away. Her minister, Pastor Greg (Grant Piro), has asked her to run a puppet club out of the church. The teenage attendees include her son Jason (Gyton Grantley), Jessica (Morgan O’Reilly) and troublemaker Timmy (Jake Speer). Jason has a crush on Jessica, but is too shy to do anything about it; while Timmy has serious designs on Margery.

Jason may be backward in coming forward, but not so his puppet, Tyrone. Tyrone not only inculcates himself into Jason’s very being, but takes control, with disastrous … and hilarious results. A portent comes in the prologue when a sock puppet regales us with a story about the beginning of mankind and the first appearance of Satan.

A clever dual stage (the action happens at both the front and back with a curtain opening and closing as appropriate) works a treat. This enables one scene to seamlessly transition to the next. Jacob Battista is the set designer.

Gary Abrahams directs this subversive offering. He’s the man who premiered Bad Jews for Australian audiences at the Alex Theatre.

It took me a while to appreciate what I was seeing. But by halfway through the first act, I was on board this black comedy. Not all the slapstick humour hits the mark, but there were some sidesplittingly funny moments. Still I felt the exaggeration was detrimental at times. An example of the humour a scene in the second act where a second female puppet is introduced. It’s rude, crude … and a touch of genius.

Photo: Angel Leggas

Interestingly – notwithstanding my comment about the exaggeration – the more outrageous Hand to God became, the more I enjoyed it. I was particularly taken by the performances of Alison Whyte (Faith Healer) and Gyton Grantley (South Pacific), who distinguished themselves.

Hand to God is an eye-opener; a wacky piece that turns the tables on religious conservatism. It’s one you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. It’s playing at Alex Theatre in St Kilda until 18 March 2018.

Alex First

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