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Hand To God

Hand to God.  Written by Robert Haskins. Directed by David Ivers. The Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St, Berkeley, CA 94704.

Berkeley Rep scores big with Hand To God, the dark comedy of sweet, innocent Texas teen Jason and his demonic sock puppet Tyrone. This isn’t Kukla Fran and Ollie or Shari Lewis and Lambchop puppetry, oh no. Tyrone is a trickster, capable of rejecting societal norms and exhibiting extreme violence. Their history goes as far back as before Jesus and was used to mock the Church since its inception. The first act of Hand To God is as perfect a piece of theatre you’re likely to experience.

Jason, his crush Jessica and bad boy Timothy are stuck in the Church’s puppet class, preparing for what appears to be a lame bible story presentation. Jason’s mother Margery, a recent widow, runs the class, cause she can’t sing, can’t preach and her brownies taste like old tires. The class is a disaster; Timothy, all Goth bravado and profanity hits of Margery, mocks Jason as a wimp and taunts Jessica. Michael McIntire’s Timothy is Vinnie Barbarino on steroids, funny in his brash sexuality and overt seduction of his teacher. Laura Odeh’s Margery is a woman grasping tightly onto the tether of her sanity. When lonely Pastor Greg, played by Bay Area local David Kelly hits on her, her repulsion is palpable.

Margery (Laura Odeh) and Timothy (Michael McIntire) get it on. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Margery (Laura Odeh) and Timothy (Michael McIntire) get it on. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Michael Doherty delivers a knock-out performance as the troubled Jason and his alter ego, the foul-mouthed Tyrone. His sock puppet slowly takes his personality, egging him onto to bolder and more troubling behavior. When confronted about his horrific actions, Tyrone boldly says “ Look at the kid and tell me who’s in control?”. We begin to ask that question ourselves over the course of the play.

Seems Jason is greatly affected by the loss of his father and blames his mother. The two just can’t seem to connect on any level. Add to the mix his raging hormones and crush on Jessica, played by Carolina Sanchez. When Tyrone finds out Timothy has slept with his mother, all hell breaks loose.  Should there be an exorcism? Will Tyrone take over Jason completely or will his soul be unified? It’s a bravura duo performance that’s both eerie and tender.

Jessica (Carolina Sanchez) and her puppet seduces Jason (Michael Doherty) and Tyrone. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Jessica (Carolina Sanchez) and her puppet seduces Jason (Michael Doherty) and Tyrone. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Director David Ivers delivers the comic goods in this West Coast premiere of Robert Haskin’s Obie winning, Tony nominated smash hit. His pacing is spot on and the staging a marvel.  There’s a hilarious sex scene between Tyronne and Jessica’s sexy puppet that has to be seen to be believed. Kudos to Amanda Villalobos for her puppet designs. Jo Winiarski’s set design, Alexander Nichol’s lighting and Joe Payne’s sound brilliantly recreate a simple Texas church basement gone satanic. A heavy metal score pumps up the angst, profane graffiti replaces the serene Jesus posters and colored spotlighting concentrates the progression and elevation of anxiety and drama.

The second act deals with some universal psychological manifestations of loneliness, grief, and abandonment lending weight to the outrageously comic elements of sock puppet possession. Hand To God, like Avenue Q before it, is wildly irreverent and very, very funny.  It’s  must-see theatre at its finest.

Performances run through March 19, 2017         www. berkeleyrep.org                   510.647.2949