Review: 'Hand to God' at The Coal Mine

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Robert Askin’s ‘Hand to God’ might come dangerously close to brash irreverence for fundamentalist or deeply devoted/devout Christians.  For this practicing Catholic who still holds the tenements of the faith close to his heart, I wasn’t offended whatsoever at the very dark elements of black comedy hidden within the tightly wound script.

If anything, this wickedly sinful yet so much corrupt fun of Coal Mine’s production allowed me to have a good laugh for the very reason I’m allowed to laugh in live theatre.  Why? ‘Hand to God’ allowed me to venture to the very edge of what might considered to be appropriate versus inappropriate human nature without ever feeling uncomfortable. The use of puppetry allowed me to make believe and to buy into any kind of outrageous ‘what if’ situations which come along in the plot.

And boy, oh boy, this ‘what if’ situation is hilariously relentless in its lampooning of Christian fundamentalism.

In the deeply religious and fundamentalist town of Cypress, Texas, the story focuses on Sunday school teacher and recently widowed Margery (Nicole Underhay) who, as the story opens, works with three young people in the creation of hand puppets.  There is the whacko-psycho sadistic Timothy (Francis Melling), the sweet girl next door, Jessica (Amy Keating) and Margery’s son, Jason (Frank Cox-O’Connell).  Later, Pastor Greg (Ted Dykstra) checks in on the group and later asks Margery for the members of this church club to put on a puppet play for the children next Sunday.  A point of interest that I had to look up – fundamentalist Christians use puppets to teach children about the evil works and influence of the devil.

Not all is well or right with each character in this story as there appears to be an internal struggle of the dual nature of people.  At times, we wish to repress or suppress that part most base instinct that exists within us, but in ‘Hand to God’ this base instinct is brought to light in all its malevolent glory. Margery is having an extremely difficult time coping with the loss of her husband while her withdrawn and awkwardly shy son, Jason creates off the wall hand puppet, Tyrone, who eventually possesses the young man and causes a litany of rather ribald, raunchy adult behaviour and language that forces Pastor Greg to perform an exorcism on both Tyrone and Jason.

Got all that?  There’s a lot more going on here that I don’t want to spoil for future audiences. Run, beg, scream, wait, call, surf, plead to try and get a ticket to this sold out show if you can.

Anahita Dehbonehie’s set design clearly delineates we have entered the bottom of a dingy and musty church basement complete with walk up stairs, messy shelves, and a sundry of children’s toys, games and books all placed haphazardly around on shelves and floor. I don’t want to spoil what is done in the second act where we enter Pastor Greg’s office but again a clever use of the intimate playing space which also housed a swing set. Let’s just say I’m sure the backstage crew was kept on their toes and feet every second of this production.

Director Mitchell Cushman fine tune understanding of black comedy obviously knew where he wanted and how he wanted this story to unfold which it does at just the right pace. ‘Hand to God’ kept me either laughing hysterically or watching amazedly at how this company of actors instinctively knew when to pause and when to proceed for laughs or for ‘the moment’.

And this top notch, solid, terrific cast delivers the laughs in droves.

As Pastor Greg, Ted Dyskstra is marvellous to watch in his portrayal of a man hell bent (oops, heck bent. You’ll get the joke when you see the play) to ensure order is restored through the comically infused exorcism in the second act.  His Pastor Greg is a Ned Flanders tripped out on Ritalin, Fentanyl and Oxycodone. Nicole Underhay as Margery is magnificent as the tortured soul of a mother who doesn’t understand what is truly happening within her vacuous world of loss and disappointment.

The church youth are polar opposites in character to each other who spark and ignite and electricity of tension in their performances.  As whacko, goth slug Timothy, Francis Melling’s height and size combine nicely to reveal what we think might be the tough jerk of a kid, but the plot line tells us otherwise. Amy Keating’s Jessica hits the right mark as the initially sweet girl whom all of us probably had a crush on in our younger years. Ms. Keating’s comic prowess shines in the second act in the introduction of her sexy puppet, Jolene.

Frank Cox-O’Connell’s dual performance as subdued Jason and possessed puppet Tyrone is a tour de force knockout. I sat in awe and with admiration watching this young man transition so seamlessly from each character and vocal adaptations with nary any blunders.  This young man’s work is truly worth the price of admission.

Final Comments: Did I have fun this night at The Coal Mine? Sure as hell did. Should you get tickets?  Sure as hell if you can ‘cause I hear it’s sold out but there are possible matinees.

The Coal Mine is located at 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto.  Try the box office at 1 800-838-3006 for tickets or visit www.coalminetheatre.ca for further information.  I can hardly wait for their next season.

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.

Photo by Kristina Ruddick.

Director: Mitchell Cushman; Puppetry Direction and Design: Marcus Jasmin; Lighting Designer: Nick Blais; Costume Designer: Lindsay Dagger Junkin; Music and Sound Designer: Bram Geilen. Fight Director: Simon Fon; Stage Manager: Meghan Speakman.