‘Possessed’ puppet is real star of brilliant Berkeley Rep comedy

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

Jason (Michael Doherty) is astounded by what his foul-mouthed puppet, Tyrone, starts spewing in “Hand to God.” His best friend, Timothy (Michael McIntire), is less put off. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

Jason (Michael Doherty) is astounded by what his foul-mouthed puppet, Tyrone, starts spewing in “Hand to God.” His best friend, Timothy (Michael McIntire), is less put off. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

He insults virtually everyone.

He talks without verifiable thought process, and never censors himself.

He’s crude.

Devious, dangerous and destructive as well.

No, he’s not Donald Trump, our so-called president. He’s Tyrone, a devilish sock puppet hell-bent on messing up his handler, Jason (divinely portrayed by Michael Doherty in “Hand to God” at the Berkeley Rep).

Tyrone (Doherty again) chews up the scenery and, in effect, becomes the show’s real star.

Playwright Robert Askins’ uproarious black comedy with mega-serious undertones and violent overtones is, at best — and there’s no more appropriate word for it — brilliant.

At worst, it’s thought-provoking.

It made me recall the brilliance — and cringeworthiness — of Martin McDonagh’s serio-comic “Pillowman.”

And at various interludes in this two-act, 70-minute play, I also flashed on “Lord of the Flies” and its societal disintegration, “The Exorcist” and its demonic possession, “The Graduate” and its lustful look at a young man and an older woman, “King of Hearts” in which if the inmates don’t run the asylum they at least populate a town, and “Catcher in the Rye” with its angst-filled coming of age.

Despite all those reference points, “Hand to God” is unique.

First off, it includes an elongated, show-stopping, two-puppet sex romp that had me — and the rest of the opening night audience — in stitches.

Vastly funnier than the groundbreaking bit in “Avenue Q.”

In the second place, the “Hand to God” plotline is more than slightly unusual.

Thumbs up1We initially find the toothless Tyrone on the arm of a naïve, awkward Jason singing “Jesus Loves Me” in a Texas church. But the puppet morphs into a foul-mouthed, sharp-toothed critter that resembles an attack dog, exposes congregants’ secrets, and sings the praises of Satan (whom he emulates).

He also illuminates the contradictions and pitfalls of what being human’s all about.

Margery (energetically played by Laura Odeh), Jason’s horny mom, stresses because her son blames her for his father’s death-by-overeating. So she chooses a quickie affair in the “puppet practice” room with Timothy (Michael McIntire perfect as a testosterone-crazed teen), Jason’s best bud.

Complications ensue when the scene shifts to two alums of an important recent Berkeley Rep adaptation/Trump denunciation, “It Can’t Happen Here” — David Kelly (depicting Greg, a the nervous-nelly pastor who futilely puts the moves on Margery), and Carolina Sanchez (exceptionally believable as Jessica, a student slowly getting in touch with her raging hormones) who turns another puppet into an emotional, sexual foil.

Director David Ivers, who guided “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Rep in 2015, manages to evoke all the subversive outrageousness of “Hand” with pleasure and without hesitancy.

The result?

The final blackout the night I attended drew vigorous audience applause and, when Doherty took his bow, a standing ovation.

Following steady streams of laughter.

My wife called the show incredibly amusing, an important factoid because she was a professional puppeteer for 15 years, performing for 3- to 8-year-olds.

She focused on an aspect I hadn’t known about: “Parts of it remind me of therapy I’ve seen done with children who were acting out or sad or angry. They could safely relate to a puppet they thought was listening to them.”

To be sure, not every leitmotif is effective, not every curse word is necessary, not every joke works.

But way more than enough succeeds, certainly, to make the evening — unless you’re easily offended — a rare “must-see.”

The play, not incidentally, kicks off with a vibrant bang what might become an exceptionally productive two-year lame-duck stint for Tony Taccone, who’s announced he’ll be leaving his artistic director position — after 22 years — at the tail of the 2018-19 season.

“Hand to God” plays at Peet’s Theatre, Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, through March 19. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Tickets: $14.50 to $97, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

 Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or www.vitalitypress.com.

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