Regional Reviews: San Diego
During Sunday school classes at Cypress Lutheran Church in 1997, recent widow Margery (DeAnna Driscoll) leads a "puppet ministry." One of the students is her teenage son Jason (Caleb Foote). While kindhearted and morally ethical, Jason is painfully shy and has trouble interacting with others. During class, he starts using a puppet named Tyrone to communicate. Unlike Jason, Tyrone is a profanity-spewing pervert who seems to have a mind of his own. Shortly after the teen starts talking to Tyrone in private, the sinful soul starts to completely hijack Jason's life.
Foote's puppetry skills appear amateurish early on in a couple of the opening sequences, but that's deliberate. After Tyrone's presence starts to become important to the plot, Foote's acting is increasingly animated and expressive. He is able to move back and forth between two opposing personalities in a hilarious manner. An increase in Tyrone's mayhem might be a big part of the staging, but he isn't the only source of laughs. Garrett Marshall and Christina L. Flynn bring enjoyably abnormal qualities in portraying Jason's classmates, while Driscoll and Jason Heil expose the flaws of the adult characters they depict. While none of these people are without sin, they are all revealed to have positive qualities as well.
Though partially inspired by his childhood, Askins' satire isn't realistic. Yet there are subjects that are explored with authenticity. Poor parenting, grieving, and struggling with good and evil are referenced in ways that aren't always meant to be humorous. With some tweaks to the premise, Hand to God could have been a drama, which is something Askins has acknowledged in interviews. There are even a few moving moments that Foote and Driscoll provide with their excellent performances. That's not to suggest that the night is without humor for extended periods of time. For the most part, the playwright features consistent gags. A couple of lines try a little too hard to offend, like Tyrone suggesting that the devil was invented. These moments aren't too problematic because the writer's main target isn't necessarily faith, but the idea of perfectionism. He pokes fun at how people make excuses for their faults and weaknesses. His exploration of this message isn't always subtle, yet it fits with the way the plot is told.
The artists behind the scenes at the Lyceum Stage, particularly co-founder/Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse, have fun depicting the slow-growing chaos. Woodhouse presents a world that starts out in a fairly ordinary way, but eventually becomes stranger and more unusual. While the narrative is set in a variety of locations, it's Pastor Greg's (Heil) classroom where the biggest action occurs. Robin Sanford Roberts' set and Trevor Norton's lighting add comedic touches when Tyrone commits bad deeds. Matt Lescault-Wood's audio includes plenty of music, though his most tongue-in-cheek selections occur before act one. Several songs with religious lyrics, such as "Spirit in the Sky" and "Jesus is Alright" play as theatregoers take their seat.
San Diegans who go into this interpretation cold might be tricked into thinking this is a play meant specifically for a religious Christian audience. If one is prepared for a staging that features a twisted sense of humor, Hand to God more than delivers. As long as one doesn't get easily embarrassed, Woodhouse's interpretation offers uproarious amusement for everybody, religious and non-religious alike.
San Diego Repertory Theatre presents Hand to God through November 12, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $33.00 and can be purchased online at www.sdrep.org or by phone at 1-619-544-1000.