I’m always curious as to what motivates a playwright, in this case Robert Askins. His five-time, Tony Award-nominated “Hand to God” is a pretty explicit, sometimes raunchy, yet believe it or not, comedic play with puppets. “Hand to God” currently is running at the 165-seat Copley Theatre (two years in the planning, $2 million in renovation) directly across the street from Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. And believe me, it is not your typical theatrical endeavor.
Askins was inspired by a combination of things that coincidentally end up in his play: his hometown is Cypress, Texas, his mother led a Christian youth puppet ministry at Saint John’s Lutheran Church that he was involved in, and his father died when he was 16. In the April 2015 issue of Broadway Buzz, Askins said “those things are the bedrock foundation seminal moments in my childhood. I was writing about them in a Sam Shepard way, trying to understand them as a Western surreal tragedy. It took me a long time to figure out it wasn’t tragedy, it was comedy.” The Southern expression “hand to God” means honesty and telling the truth, and ends up as Askins’ title of the play.
So here’s the plot: after a puppet-led, pre-history monologue discussion (who invented right and wrong and a warning reminder of “the devil made me do it”), we are introduced to the five actors in a very realistic church hall classroom (superbly designed by Jonathan Berg-Einhorn). The recently widowed Margery has been asked by Pastor Greg to lead the puppet ministry for their Texas church. Three teens have signed on: her awkward son, Jason; Jessica, the girl Jason has a major crush on; and Timmy, the neighborhood troublemaker and bully.
All three teens are disinterested participants, but the puppet show is scheduled for next Sunday’s service. So far, so boringly good – that is until the puppets begin to take on lives and personalities of their own, particularly Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, a most perverse and shockingly foul-mouthed character, probably better identified as The Devil. Thus begins, at times, an outrageous, very irreverent, dark and raw journey. The themes may not be as evident as we’d like: grief, adolescence, family relationships, reality, human folly, organized religion – in this play, it’s all of the above. And you wonder, is it a comedy? A drama? Theater of the Absurd? Yes, but it’s also a combo of “Avenue Q,” Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Exorcist.”
Director Trent Stork cast extremely well, and the pacing and focus of this production is so extraordinary you resent the intermission. The five-actor ensemble is just incredible, particularly those who have the additional task of establishing another personality at the end of their arms, although it also can be argued that Margery and Pastor Greg do show another personality without extensions to their arms.
Monica West is Margery, the mother who “can’t sing, can’t preach, and whose brownies taste like old tires.” West illustrates the bereavement of having recently lost her husband. She is emotionally scarred, and I believed her when her character exclaimed she was lost and confused. I waited for West to explode, and her buildup via expression and vocal cadence was masterful.
Adam Wesley Brown is Pastor Greg. He also serves as the production’s fight and intimacy captain. Brown conveys a contrasting supportive shepherd of the flock (“have a blessed day”) and a needy lonely man (“I’ve got empty arms and ears”) brilliantly.
A Fox Valley native from Huntley is Jordan Moore, portraying Timmy, a very troubled kid from a dysfunctional family. Moore is tall, very physical, a commanding presence, and extremely credible in his character’s aggressive confusion of love and lust. He also can keep a straight face.
Felicia Oduh is Jessica. Oduh plays her as cocky, smart, complicated and trapped. And she also almost steals the show with her puppet, Jolene. Oduh is one of those gifted actresses who express attitude facially and vocally very well.
But it is August Forman as Jason that you cannot keep your eyes off. Ever. What is remarkable about Forman is that the actor astonishingly and superbly presents two entirely different and distinct characters, each independent of the other in terms of physicality, vocal skills, and even comedic delivery. Forman’s Jason is the sweet, shy, timid and deeply unhappy nerd, while Tyrone is outlandish, profane, outrageous and highly articulate, not to mention manic. Although the “Who’s on First” exchange is particularly captivating, I defy you not to believe that Jason and Tyrone aren’t two different performers. Forman must be exhausted every night – the actor is breathtaking.
Forman, Moore, Oduh and West all are making their Paramount debuts, with Brown having appeared in Paramount’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” All five actors are magnetic, and the onstage chemistry is obvious. I cannot imagine this was an easy gig. They are all totally deserving of the roaring standing ovation they received opening night.
The success of “Hand to God” also can be attributed to the team with whom director Stork collaborated. Yvonne L. Miranda’s colorful and character-appropriate costumes, Cat Wilson’s lighting, Aimee Plant’s props, and Paul Deziel’s projections richly enhance every scene. Jeffrey Levin’s sound design certainly is fun and fitting for the setting of this production. For reasons that will become transparently clear, Jon Beal’s fight direction, Jyreika Guest’s intimacy direction and Spencer Lott’s puppetry coaching illustrate the characters’ vulnerability and Askins’ challenging plot. And thanks to Susan Gosdick’s dialect coaching, we’re in Texas.
“Hand to God” is the second play in the Paramount’s new BOLD Series; the aptly named series asks the audience to take risks and to open the mind. I may have cringed, I may have been uneasy at times, but I sure laughed. Yes, “Hand to God” is not your typical theatrical endeavor, but I’m appreciative that the BOLD Series exists. And I’ll never look at puppets in the same way.
• Regina Belt-Daniels continues to have a hands-on approach to theater as a working director and occasional actress. She began her area career in 1985, at the Woodstock Opera House; when not traveling with her husband, she lives to teach, attend live theater, and serve on Illinois theater boards.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Paramount Theatre’s BOLD Series presents “Hand to God”
WHERE: Copley Theatre at North Island Center, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
WHEN: Through July 10, for mature audiences only because of disturbing content
COST: $67 to $74 or series subscription; masks strongly recommended
INFORMATION: 630-896-6666, paramountaurora.com