I must hand it to the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild for creating a layered, hilarious world in Hand To God.
Hand To God is set in Cypress, Texas (the hometown of the playwright, Robert Askins), where Jason (Matt Houston), still processing the death of his father, feels compelled to be part of the local church’s puppet ministry run by his mother, Margery (Emily Branford). Margery is on a journey of self-loathing and self-discovery, too, and the story plots the naive, confused, and fraught interactions between mother and son, in furious combinations and permutations with the Pastor Greg (Brendan Cooney), and fellow puppeteers, Jessica (Laura Antoniazzi) and Timothy (Tom Tassone).
That would provide succour enough for an evening’s worth of entertainment, but Hand To God is given grit, spice, and destructive power by Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone, who takes on a life of his own.
Watching this play is the theatrical equivalent of riding the most frenzied and gasp-worthy thrill ride at an amusement park; every time you think the story is about to zig, it zags and zags again.
Despite the religious setting, this is not a critique of Christianity. Instead, it is a glorious romp of acting, puppetry, and storytelling, dressed in religious garb.
What Askins has woven beautifully into this hand-knitted farce, is a kaleidoscopic array of insights into the internal journeys of our lead protagonists. For example, amid rollicking guffaws, director, Nick Fagan, has ensured that Branford and Houston have time and space for poignant moments of truth and reflection; an opportunity both actors seem to relish and revel in. In Branford’s case, she gloriously uses her prim, Amy Grant-approved, ankle-length skirt, and taut demeanour, as a canvas to splatter with outrageous outpourings as the story continues. The ultimate juxtaposition of just how far her character has “fallen”, occurs against the most Christian of all backdrops in a moment of comedic and directorial brilliance. For Houston, he has built upon his reputation as a comic lead with this tour de force of acting and physicality, conjuring substantial life into Tyrone without ever breaking our suspension of disbelief. Houston, we have no problem; the sky seems to be the limit for this actor!
Fagan has truly stamped his mark of “risky risqué” direction in Hand To God. There are many gems where we see his hand at work, so to speak, but none more vividly than the scene with Antoniazzi and Houston coupled in pupulation (is that a word for copulation between puppets) scene (oh, the staged levels of intensity upon intensity are, at once, exquisitely painful and brilliant) and the dramatic, sweeping dive into the Exorcist-like hellscape. There is deft theatre here, with layer upon layer of thought and connection in almost every scene.
And there is much to be noted about the performances of Cooney, who oozes the pure, upright, misguided-innocent-creepiness of the pastor, and Tassone’s no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners performance as the bad boy (who just might be the most honest character on stage, to boot).
With simple use of the Little Theatre space, Hand To God is a production where Viktoria Burrett’s costuming takes centre stage. Every character was aided and abetted by their costumes in ways that gave them foundations to build upon and an extra flourish of expression from the first moments they appear on stage.
Sure, with this production, the whole cast and company may well have poured kerosine onto the fires of hell awaiting them, but I know they’ll use their eternity of gnashing of teeth to ruminate over the heights to which they took comedy, drama, and puppetry as they extended their middle finger and raised their Hand To God.