Brian M. Balduzzi
- OnStage New York Critic
Ithaca NY - The Kitchen Theatre Company of Ithaca, New York opens it 2016-2017 season with the hilarious and irreverent Tony Award-nominated Hand to God. Billed as “A New American Play,” Robert Askins play shocks even the most liberal of audiences from gasps to laughter, some jokes and situations more of an uncomfortable laugh, while others are outright gleeful. The Kitchen Theatre rightfully chooses this new play, making its regional premiere, because the theatre company believes “important conversations happen in the Kitchen.” While puppets might keep the play feeling zany and manic, the true of loss, grief, moving on, and saviors is palpably felt throughout. Hand to God is the real deal, creating opportunities for adults (yes, it’s an 18-year-old-plus event) to connect through laughter, pain, and, maybe, even, a little redemption.
Hand to God opens with a narrator, a sock puppet in a mini-stage set in an empty church basement “somewhere in Texas where the country meets the city.” He introduces us, not to the characters, but to a history of sorts, starting with the beginning of mankind and progressing to our rules of right and wrong, and what it means to do bad things. This scene, though short and somewhat superficial, adequately frames our understanding for the rest of the play. The puppet stage becomes a pulpit, the sock puppet becomes our ironic priest giving a sermon on virtue and, ultimately, the devil. We next open in a Sunday school room, religious drawings skewed around the walls, classic and simple toys tucked away on the shelfs, a sterile environment excellently crafted by the collective efforts of Scenic Designer Kent Goetz, Props Coordinator Tasha Sinclair, and Props Renderer Sarah Frank. Making the multiple scenes ebb and flow with perfect dramatic and comedic timing was essential in the intimate 99-person black box theatre. They achieve much success.
We meet Margery, a struggling Southern widow and church puppet teacher and coordinator, played with remarkable restraint and poise by Erica Steinhagen. Steinhagen plays the ridiculous cards that she is dealt with Margery with conviction and gusto. She has a million smiles for every situation, from the local pastor making a pass at her, to her weird son getting a little too attached to his puppet, to dealing with shitty students. In fact, Steinhagen’s Margery copes in silence at the beginning, and Steinhagen gives us glimpses of Margery’s deteriorating exterior through small shifts and glances. It’s a beautiful sight to see as things unravel for our flawed heroine. The rising action in Hand to God is nothing short of ridiculous: tasked by Pastor Greg (played with manic energy and enthusiasm by Aundre Seals) with performing a church puppet show, Margery must rally her teenage son, Jason (played with evolving comfortability by Karl Gregory); Jason’s love interest, Jessica (played with pitch-perfect comedic timing by Montana Lampert Hoover); and the class clown, Timothy (played by the gleeful and delightful Michael Patrick Trimm). However, when Jason’s puppet emerges with a personality and life of its own, all hell (literally) breaks loose.
Askin’s play is a zany mix of some of the best one-liners (“You’re so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia”) and situational humor (a dud performance of “Who’s on First?” and an unexpected bout of sexual exploration), mixed with a healthy dose of reality (“I want you to toughen the fuck up”). In fact, the puppets say and do exactly what we, as the audience, are thinking. Jason is a dork, Timothy is a perv, Margery is repressed, Pastor Greg is a creep, and Jessica is, well, a bit one-dimensional. Through the interactions with Tyrone, Jason’s demon-possessed puppet, the sad cast of characters develop the tools for talking to each other, communicating their needs, and becoming the people who they want to be. Director (and Artistic Director) Rachel Lampert orchestrates the play to feel like a hilarious morality play; you forget that things are pretty shitty for these characters until some tender moments and then it hits you like a sock puppet to the face.
Though some of the scenes, particularly Gregory’s Jason and Tyrone, feel a little slow, a delayed back-and-forth between human puppet decelerates the momentum of the show. I’m not sure if it was the intense acting work required to manipulate a two-way conversation between Jason and his puppet, or whether switching from a Southern accent to a demonized puppet impeded the flow, but these scenes felt subdued. Some of the best moments came from Lampert and Puppet Director Scott Hitz’s direction for Tyrone and Jason, especially Tyrone’s hand subtly turning Jason’s head. These moments kept the physical comedy in the forefront, even when the dialogue moved at a glacial pace. In addition, while I understand that the show is two acts, I disagree with the intermission, feeling like the first scene of Act II merely explains where we’re been and the actors feel like they’re moving in slow motion, just as the action and tension starts to move forward. In short, most aspects of the show’s direction and execution played well in the intimate space, but felt a little safe for such a risqué and bold show. Fight choreography seemed to occur at three-quarters speed, and some moments still felt like the actors were exploring boundaries and excesses.
Despite my hesitant praise, I found the existential questions posed, and wonderfully accented by the cast, to be superb and shocking. In a world where tragedy hits, nothing goes as planned, and every now and then, we just have to grow up, face our fears, and lean on those closest to us. How odd that a Jekyll & Hyde-meets-Miss Piggy sock puppet can teach us so much in just under 2 hours? Life’s lessons are never easy; life’s problems are never easily solved. But through laughter, pain, confrontation, and reflection, maybe, Hand to God provides some answers, or, at the very least, an incredibly enjoyable night at the theatre.
As a final reflection, the Kitchen Theatre Company offered one of the most warming welcomes that I have experienced in my five years of reviewing. As a newcomer to the upstate New York area after seven years in Boston, I was not prepared for the sweet and gregarious staff hosting us in the Kitchen. Lampert’s ability to command an introduction makes the affair feel intimate, a safe place to let down your guard and enjoy yourself in the comfort of someone’s home. The theatre is really a home and family, and I can’t wait to spend more time with them.