Friday, August 12, 2022

HAND TO GOD by Robert Askins

Michael Cooper and Tyrone. 

Directed by Jarrad West – Production designed by Arran McKenna

Lighting Design by Nathan Sciberras - Sound Design by Nikki Fitzgerald

Presented by Everyman Theatre -  The ACT Hub 27TH July – 13th August. 

Performance on 10th August reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Tyrone - Michael Cooper (Jason) - Holly Ross (Jessica) - Jolene

I must confess to never having heard of this play even though I've since discovered that it had Off-Broadway seasons in 2011 and 2014 before moving to Broadway in 2015 where it garnered no fewer than five Tony nominations including Best New Play.

Thank heavens Jarrad West knew about it and has given it a scintillating production in the ACT Hub which deserves to be a sell-out every night because it is the funniest thing I’ve seen in years.

On entering The Hub there’s a warning sign promising consensual sexual violence, gore, high lever coarse language, flashing lights, loud noises and adult themes. Yep! They’re all there plus a few other no no’s they forgot to mention. But they’re all wrapped up in some of the funniest and cleverest staging seen on a Canberra stage in years, and performed by a quintet of superb actors who really understand what they’re about.

Steph Roberts (Margery) -Josh Wiseman (Timothy) - Arran McKenna (Pastor Greg)
Tyrone - Michael Cooper (Josh)

The action is set in a small Texas town where Jason (Michael Cooper) lives with his recently widowed mother Margery (Steph Roberts) who makes puppets for the local puppet club. Margery is a member of a Fundamentalist Christian congregation which uses puppets to teach children to follow the bible and avoid Satan. Jason and his next door neighbour, Jessica (Holly Ross), who Jason has a crush on, as well as his friend Timothy (Josh Wiseman) the school bully who’s attending alcoholics anonymous, are all members of the Puppet Club which Pastor Greg (Arran McKenna), who has designs on Margery, is doing his best to persuade to put on a performance the following Sunday.

When the characters become sexually attracted to each other, Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone, takes on a life of his own, announces that he’s Satan and expresses secrets the other characters would rather leave unacknowledged.

This is a play that can be enjoyed simply as a farcical romp, and it certainly is fun on that level. The writing is witty, but the language and subject matter is often confronting.

In an effort to understand my own response to the play I came across a paper written by academic, Marianne Drudgeon, who used this play as a basis for her paper examining “Rethinking Laughter in Contemporary Anglophone Theatre”. According to Drudgeon, the author Askins had much deeper intentions and by using the classical tools of humour to create a desperate atmosphere of mental and physical violence he was aiming at displaying the taboos, and denouncing the hypocrisy of the American society in general, and more particularly that of Christian congregations faced with the sexuality of teenagers.

The spectator’s reactions are a complex combination of laughter and unease as the author dares them to laugh as they cringe".

 Jarrad West obviously understood that and has had his actors interpret the characters not as clowns but as real people and while most of their reactions are ridiculously over-the-top the audience is compelled to empathise and feel for them.

Steph Roberts as the terminally confused Margery gives one of her best performances to date. That’s saying a lot, as she rarely disappoints with her interpretations. She’s a mistress of the slow-burn, and when she explodes she’s terrifying. But she also captures Margery’s confusion and pain, and her comedic timing is a joy to behold.

Similarly with the venal Pastor Greg played by Arran McKenna. While laughing at his inept attempts to seduce Margery, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for this square-peg even while rejoicing in his come-uppance.

Josh Wiseman creates a creepy, though strangely pathetic character as the sex-obsessed teenager, Timothy. His reaction to Margery’s response to his overtures is priceless and their sex-scene quite wonderfully staged.

Holly Ross (Jessica) - Joelene - Tyrone - Michael Cooper (Jason)

Similarly Holly Ross is delightful as the sweet, presumably innocent, Jessica, the girl next door, which makes her scene with Jason; in which each struggle for words as their puppets engage in joyfully exploring every possible sexual position, so deliciously funny to watch.

I’ve deliberately left comment on Michael Cooper’s performance as Josh to last because it is so very special and a genuine theatrical tour-de-force. 

Cooper creates two distinct personalities and doesn’t miss a beat in his quick-fire conversations with his puppet, Tyrone. He manages to give each a distinct personality so that as Tyrone begins to take control of Josh’s life there is never any confusion as to which character is speaking. Their final fight for control is brutal and quite disturbing to watch, but brilliantly executed and certainly memorable.

Michael Cooper (Jason) - Tyrone - Steph Roberts (Margery)

This brilliantly staged production is something very special and whether or not you agree with Drudgeon, certainly one which will have you examining your responses for days afterwards. 

             Production photos by Janelle McMenamin/Michael Moore.

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.