Chicago Theater Review: HAND TO GOD (Victory Gardens Biograph Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 24, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Unholy rolling, Hand To God is a one-joke coming-of-age comedy, a Twilight Zone episode on steroids. Robert Askins’ two-act 2011 travesty treats demonic possession as a schizophrenic rite of passage: A twisted teenager suddenly takes orders from the hand puppet at the end of his arm. Hell breaks loose. A Victory Gardens Theater Chicago premiere, Gary Griffins’ suitably sick staging turns blood bags into horse laughs and alter egos into fright nights–but, damnation take us, it’s all bad fun.


The setting: A “puppet practice” ministry in the rec room of a Baptist church in Cypress, Texas. Playing with cute little puppets, innocent tykes gesture for Jesus. All seems okey-dokey. But nothing is normal with Tyrone, a green-eyed, X-rated hand puppet complete with teeth who has taken over the arm and soul of teenage Jason (Alex Weisman in a split-personality tour de comedy).

eric-slater-alex-weisman-photo-by-liz-laurenA prologue already introduces the audience to Tyrone and his philosophy that civilization invented evil in order to defeat it and progress. In any case “Tyrone”—whether he is Lucifer in a sock or a personification of troubled Jason’s lousy life–begins a foul-mouthed reign of profanity-laced insults, vandalizing, sexual harassment, ear-biting and more mutilation, and garden-variety subversion of all sorts. (Well, not every kid can have a doll named Chucky)

The vicious reign of Tyrone starts innocuously, with the puppet and Jason reprising Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” comedy routine. But Tyrone is ripe to make mischief. Strangely, what sets Tyrone (alias Jason) off is the extra evil around him. Already crushed by the loss of his dad when he was 16 (how could God let this happen?), Jason is enraged by adult hypocrisy. His trailer-trash, self-hating mom Margery (Janelle Snow) is pursued by the horndog Pastor Greg (Eric Slater) and in turn pursues teen punk Timothy (Curtis Edward Jackson). Meanwhile, good-girl Jessica (Nina Ganet), equipped with her own possibly possessed puppet, stews in frustration as Jason ignores her. But, ominously, Jessica brings out the lech in Tyrone.


Did the devil make him do it? Is Tyrone another Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, bent on revenging Jason’s dad and possibly world destruction? Or can the good in Jason defeat his rampaging arm? Pastor Greg is hardly holy enough to exorcise a satanic sock puppet. Jason’s dominatrix mom is scandal enough for one parish. But now her son literally holds the anti-Christ at arm’s length. It seems that hell is well in Texas. Can Lucifer be amputated?


No question, as a symbol of striking back, “Tyrone” becomes a peculiarly potent metaphor for adolescent rebellion. But in the second act the scatological hijinks and grungy special effects plummet to gag-reflex depths, threatening to undermine any theological questioning in middle-school mayhem. Happily, throughout the bloody vaudeville, Weisman, a master of bipolar frenzy, remains reliably hilarious. (His double-dealing plays like a tribute to the late Gene Wilder.) Jason (minus a hockey mask) is also surrounded by sturdy Southern stereotypes—Snow’s slattern of a matron, Slater’s sexed-up sicko minister, Jackson’s dumbass bully boy, and, in sweet contrast, Ganet’s weirdly supportive girl next door.


Religion and raunch make strange (sometimes suitable) bedfellows. An epilogue, delivered by an unsubdued Tyrone, reprises the moral: We invoke the Devil to find God. Whatever. It sure makes for lots of laffs on Lincoln Avenue.


photos by Liz Lauren


nina-ganet-alex-weisman-photo-by-liz-laurenHand to God
Victory Gardens
2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30;
Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on October 23, 2016
EXTENDED to October 30, 2016
for tickets, call 773.871.3000
or visit Victory Gardens

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