Wednesday 31 May 2017

Hand of God is puppet silliness writ way large 

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Tyrone's shock of red hair reveals his inner me to Sunday schoolers Jason & Jennifer.  David Cooper photo.
From the footlights : What could possibly go wrong with a "puppet ministry" for Sunday schoolers conducted by a middle-age widow in a cheery, chipper Texas church basement? Enter the demon child Tyrone, a hand-held sock puppet that is the creation of the widow's teenage son Jason. Tyrone quickly establishes how he is Jason's alter ego, a frothing, foul-mouthed priapic presence demanding his allotted time on earth.

Jason's dad died six months back from a food-fed heart attack brought on by countless moons of marital misery. Both Jason and mom Margery use the puppet piece as a way to act out their not-very-deeply masqued anxieties and impulses. Death does that to peoples' psyches, and playwright Robert Askins pulls all the right churchy strings taking us there with a delicious mix of hilarity spiked with faux-horror bits.

As oft-noted, obviously, this show can't help but be seen as a nod toward Avenue Q via an extended romp on The Exorcist set too. Oh, sure, big themes such as guilt and hypocrisy and choice-vs-chance and the gap between thought-&-deed, about love, hate, fear, loyalty and loss are looked at, but not at the expense of the acid-tipped comedy Askins intends here the more.

Son Jason and puppet maven Mom Margery share a scary distracted driving moment.  David Cooper photo.

How it's all put together :  By his own admission, the script is based on Askins' experiences as a teenager in the suburban Texas town of Cypress (akin to suppress; repress). A believer in The Jesus Story through Grade 10, Askins, like Jason, does a 180 pirouette and dives into the sulphurous streams of Satan's realm after Dad dies youngish and he blames both God and Mom for his loss. "Sympathy for the Devil" will dance gustily-&-gleefully in your head in short order. It did in mine at least. But if you're of newer vintage than I, you'll no doubt recognize AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" as the show's recessional anthem.

As the puppetteers practice at practicing their skit, Jason's character Tyrone starts popping off about Jason's budding attraction toward Jessica. She's genuinely into the puppetry schtick, while a moody & sulky Timothy attends under duress : mom dumps him there enroute to her AA meeting. The fun of it all is watching Jason flip from his flesh-&-blood mama's boy contralto into Tyrone's Mike Tyson-meets-Anthony Hopkins growly riffs. It is this primary difference from the Avenue Q modality of the actor "being" their puppets that makes Hand to God just that much goofier still. 

Production values that shine through :  Obviously playwright Askins wants audiences to explore their own aggressive, sexually-charged tendencies that are normally squelched in polite company. Until we get to act them out thanks to some silly sox and related role-plays that conspire so we drop our normal personae and play out The Other that lurks in our soul, too. 

The play's promotional materials pose the quasi-metaphysical question whether we are born innocent in a state of grace and then flail-&-fail in an inevitable fall after a wee bite of apple. Or are we fundamentally corrupt and mediocre souls who only occasionally manage to rise from the muck and mire. Frankly neither, i.m.o. We just is what we is, say I : it's DNA, culture, a fat bit of chance, and then how we respond to all that bedevils us. But whether we blame God, blame Satan, blame the Church or just curse Fate when our lives go sideways, they're all just stories we're stickin' to.  

The Devil is in dreams & details. Scary propositions both.  David Cooper photo.
Set designer Brian Ball earns kudos for his church basement rendition replete with mac-tac exit door translucent stick-ons, praise Jesus posters and such. I could smell the must and mothballs of my home church back in the Midwest. Effective dramatic lighting by Jeff Harrison that accompanied James Coomber's electro-pop organ backdrop throughout. Meanwhile the BMO proscenium set was squished to the size of my old fave the G.I. Revue stage. Bravo! 

Acting pin-spots :  As Jason / Tyrone, Oliver Castillo left everyone in the house breathless with his constant role & voice switches with the devil affixed to his right arm. While occasionally the voice-flips overlapped, generally speaking a tour de force outing as complex as it was no doubt exhausting. As Mother Margery Stevens, Bard favourite Jennifer Lines' tempestuous, sexy, guilt-riven, shouty outing was her most expressive and compelling performance yet on Vancouver boards. Her seduction of the horny teen Timothy (Mike Gill) was even better than the football coach's wife Cloris Leachman doing Timothy Bottoms in that old classic The Last Picture Show. The Texan accents were a bit spotty-&-irregular tonite, as was the odd timing of some of the blood-spurty gore. But such are wee quibbles. 

Who gonna like : Hand of God will play best to folks who have not had a dose or two of Avenue Q first, I would say. The puppet-pornucopia bit works best as a surprise antic. It doesn't entertain as much when it's a been there, done that experience that comes off as derivative. Still, Hand of God is nothing if not a robust and raw and raucous riot of aggression and violent sexual urges let loose as comedy. Pinnochio has come a long way, baby, and if profanity and sacrilege are your thing, you won't want to miss the ride on this bucking bronco of a script that finds a loveable Satan who spit right smartly in my lapsed-Baptist eye. 

Particulars :  Script by Playwright Robert Askins. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre.  At the Goldcorp Stage, BMO Theatre Stage, 1st Avenue at Columbia. On until June 25, 2017. Run-time 110 minutes, including 20 minute intermission. Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning ACBO @ 604.687.1644.  

Production team :  Director Stephen Drover.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  LCostume Designer Ines Ortner.  Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison.  Sound Designer James Coomber.  Puppet Designer & Coach Jeny Cassady.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Liz King.  Apprentice Stage Manager Koh McRadu.

Performers :  Oliver Castillo (Jason; Tyrone).  Mike Gill (Timothy).  Julie Leung (Jessica).  Jennifer Lines (Margery).  Shekhar Paleja (Pastor Greg).  

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