Reveling in its crassness, Hand to God is as deliberate in its intent to shock as it is obvious. A very strong local cast adds to the attraction of this Australian premiere.
Hand to God arrives with the cachet of a Broadway season that garnered five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. The explicit humour is not for the faint of heart (you would have to have at least coped with The Book of Mormon) and, despite the puppets, is certainly not for children.
There are an ever-dwindling number of unexplored taboo topics, but playwright Robert Askins manages to find a handful and lands some gasp-worthy did-they-really-just-say/do-that moments. There is an abundance of genuine laugh out loud shocks and surprises, but it must be noted that the current social climate makes the instances of violence and sexual aggression towards women more distasteful.
Troubled teen Jason attends his mother’s puppet-making class in the local church hall. Before long, Jason’s puppet Tyrone has taken over his life. If Tyrone is under the control of Satan he is not the only one, as each of the six characters find their behaviour spiraling out of control as they act out against the church and each other.
Askins’ brisk plotting ensures a lively pace, increasing the entertainment value and yet undermining the impact. The characters degenerate so quickly that the audience barely has a chance to know them as normal people first. The play seems to jump its own shark in act one, but fortunately finds further ground to cover in act two, including a puppet sex scene so intense it makes Avenue Q look decidedly tame.
Director Gary Abrahams matches the swiftness of the text with an intense level of energy from the actors. The acting itself also deliberately mirrors the lack of subtlety in the play, but with a cast this likable there is no problem in having the audience onside. Considering that the actors are not professional puppeteers, the puppet work is very well realised.
Set designer Jacob Battista makes excellent use of the space, overcoming the absence of wings with a solid, attractive unit set of the church hall and with alternative scenes occurring on the “stage” of the hall. Degradation of the set during the show must give stage management a mighty job in returning the set to new after each performance.
Highly experienced actor Gyton Grantley convincingly plays a sullen teenaged boy, and also manages exceptional work with fiendish puppet Tyrone. Grantley clearly establishes two characters and successfully keeps the focus on Tyrone whenever he is spewing forth bile or generally wreaking havoc. Grantley keeps Jason’s regret and lack of control clear, while maintaining an undercurrent of sympathy for the boy who has recently lost his father.
It is this sympathetic aspect that is the strongest aspect of Askins’ writing. The show is not a supernatural story, it is the tale of a boy trying to cope with the death of his father and trying to find his voice as a young adolescent.
As one of Australia’s most acclaimed and admired actors, Alison Whyte’s performance of Margery’s descent is all the more shocking. Whyte handles the violence and sexual frankness with aplomb, always keeping one foot on the ground to maintain a sense of reality even in the most heightened situations.
Versatile actor Grant Piro gives another great comic turn as Pastor Greg, ramping up the seediness of the needy pastor with expert delivery and comic timing.
Morgana O’Reilly brings a playful verve to Jessica, a local girl on whom Jason has a crush. O’Reilly really lets loose when Jessica’s puppet has “sex” with Tyrone, her unbridled performance adding significantly to the humour of the situation.
Relative newcomer Jake Speer plays horny youth Timothy with an unwavering sexual directness, matching his body language to the explicit language of the script.
Hand to God is best enjoyed with like-minded friends, perhaps with a relaxing beverage beforehand to loosen the inhibitions and bring on the laughter.
Hand to God plays at Alex Theatre, Melbourne until 18 March 2018.
Photos: Angel Leggas