There’s a very funny and unusually original ventriloquist called Nina Conti. Type her name, she’s all over You Tube. Part of her act, the adult portion, is performing with a monkey glove puppet that acts as her alter ego. The monkey says things Conti would never dare. The ventriloquist appears shocked and embarrassed, particularly when the puppet voices Conti’s true, hidden thoughts, delivered with f-bombs and a variety of other verbal assaults. There’s even a series of deadpan, ad-libbed videos of Conti (daughter of actor Tom Conti) on a psychiatrist’s couch as she seeks professional help in releasing the puppet from her arm.
You’d think it’s possible, not probable, but possible that playwright Robert Askins had at one point seen Conti’s act and was suddenly inspired, having found the perfect forum for an idea fermenting in the back of his creative mind regarding a devoutly religious, small town community and the division of the human soul, plus its consequences.
In Askins’ blistering dark comedy, Hand To God, now playing at Phoenix Theatre’s smaller Hormel Theatre in a co-production between Phoenix Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre, young Jason (Eric Zaklukiewicz) has a problem. The glove puppet on his right arm is doing and saying things that Jason would never dream of; it’s taken control, and there’s not a thing the boy can do about it.
Based in small town Texas, Askins has designed his play to unfold in an innocent church basement, a perfect Sunday School setting where the painted cinder block walls are decorated with posters relating, among others, The 12 Disciples of Jesus and The 3 Parts of The Trinity, mapped out like a strategic game plan to assist the young in finding their eventual salvation. There’s even a prayer wall with three envelopes allowing the children to write their prayers and post them for God, for themselves, or for others. Nothing unusual here, except maybe for the puppet show.
Evidently, the use of glove puppets for entertaining religious teachings, one where children are taught to accept Jesus and denounce Satan, is reasonably common in southern small towns, though rarely used in the north. In this particular small town, at the request of Pastor Greg (Louis Farber), the recently widowed Margery (Elyse Wolf) is running the church puppet club. Membership is small, and not exactly enthusiastic. There’s Timothy (Vaughn Sherman) a troublemaking, oversexed teen who happens to have a serious crush on the adult Margery; Jessica (Michelle Chin) the somewhat reserved girl-next-door, and Margery’s son, Jason.
“You don’t take that thing off much, do you,” remarks the southern-accented, girly-voiced Jessica to Jason, regarding the boy’s puppet. “I think it’s sweet how much you lerv your puppet.”
All appears normal, until something weird occurs. While entertaining Jessica with an excerpt from Abbott & Costello’s classic “Who’s on First?” skit, performed as a double-act with his glove puppet, who Jason has named Tyrone, the puppet suddenly takes control. When Jessica asks the boy if he wrote the piece, in order to impress her, he answers he did, only to have his puppet rudely declare he’s lying, adding that the girl must be stupid not to have heard of it. From that point, there’s no going back. Tyrone takes on a life of his own; he’s a puppet satanically possessed, and as if to illustrate there’s no doubt that what is happening is nothing short of demonic, Tyrone causes an overhead lamp to abruptly burn out, while all around, thunder cracks with an explosive boom so loud it seems to rock the very foundation of the church building.
Though billed as a comedy – and certainly the black humor of much of what is spoken with the voice of the foul-mouthed, demonically possessed Tyrone is often a riot – there’s a point where the funny is superseded by the horror, even the sadness; the recognition of such may depend on the audience with whom you share a performance.
Ask any actor performing comedy – light, dark, or jet black, the style matters little – and they’ll tell you, from night to night, the laughs come at different times with different beats. You never quite know what to expect. What may seem riotously funny one night may be met with silence on the following. When that happens, a complacent cast, thinking it has a guaranteed laugh-fest on its hand after hearing the belly laughs of an opening night crowd, may wonder what went wrong when the laughter of another audience is considerably subdued. The answer, of course, is nothing. Laughter is contagious. Plus, it acts as a prompt for others to join in. But when a difference in reaction occurs, something interesting happens to the play.
An audience, so busy slapping its knees and giving out deep, hearty laughs, may miss the more serious aspects of a play, or perhaps not even recognize them; they’re simply too busy enjoying themselves laughing. Like the laugh-track on a TV sit-com that not only gives atmosphere but reminds the TV viewer when to laugh, how you’ll react throughout Hand to God may depend on those sitting around you. When TV’s M*A*S*H was sold overseas, the laugh-track was removed. What amused American TV audiences received a different reaction in Europe. It was almost as if the two continents were watching a different show. And so it is with Hand to God. Friday’s opening night performance was greeted with overwhelming, boisterous laughter that (I was told) often drowned dialog. With Sunday’s matinee there were times when you could hear a pin drop.
Make no mistake, Stray Cat’s presentation with Phoenix Theatre is an excellent production and may prove to be the standout of its 2017-18 season. Director Ron May has assembled a first class cast, all of whom embody their character types exactly as required, with standouts from both Louis Farber, perfect and perfectly real as the pastor, and Elyse Wolf, convincing as the widow Margery. But when the laughter is muted, as it was this past Sunday, and the outlandish situations are played mostly straight, as they are here, a different play with the same dialog tends to emerge.
The absence of laughs makes Pastor Greg’s infatuation with Margery feel all the more realistically frustrating. Margery’s loss of her husband and now the fear of losing her son to the devil is as upsetting as it sounds, and conveyed by Wolf so convincingly well. Plus, the evil Tyrone’s domination of Jason’s right arm may well be a comically broad, freakish embellishment of satanic possession, but without that riotous laughter that the play will undoubtedly experience on some evenings, his plight comes across as all the more sad, even horrific. Be prepared for the difference.
At the conclusion of the first half, some audience members may well exit the theatre for a fifteen intermission break unexpectedly shaken. It’s as if one of the Muppets of Sesame Street bypassed the low-rent squalor of Avenue Q and went straight to the unrated director’s cut of The Exorcist.
Hand to God continues at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre until February 25
Above Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose
Above Picture Courtesy of Reg Madison