The concept of evil has been portrayed throughout human history, from pirates to aliens to dictators to the Devil himself. But how was the concept of evil or badness created? And why is the Devil the scapegoat? The answers to these questions come from the foul mouth of a talking puppet, Tyrone, in Hand to God, a collaboration production between 5th Wall Theatre and TheatreLAB. With five Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards nominations – and with TheatreLAB collecting 18 nominations – it is needless to say that this is a powerhouse of a show.
The story places the audience in the middle of puppet practice at a southern church. Jason (Adam Turck), an anxious and meek youth, joins two other kids Jessica (Anne Michelle Forbes) and Timmy (Adam Valentine) as they work on their puppetry skills taught by Jason’s mother, Margery (Kimberly Jones Clark). With the looming affection for Margery from Pastor Greg (Fred Iacovo), Jason is stuck in a sad and lonely state after the death of his father. Being thrust into this setting, the audience comes to find that Jason’s skills with his puppet, Tyrone, are not simply from many hours of practice; Tyrone seems to be possessed by something greater than Jason. Over the course of the show, Tyrone grows in strength, lewdness, and wickedness.
To put it plainly, Hand to God is a dark show. That being said, there is a healthy balance of knee-slapping humor that is as punchy as the puppet. Both people and puppets deliver both smart and crude jokes, as well as a healthy serving of physical comedy. And yet, one can’t help but come back to the sick and even twisted portions of this show.
A substantial amount of applause must be given to the powerful Adam Turck, who is not simply playing one character but two. Puppetry is an extension of oneself that takes skin and bone and turns it into fur and linen (i.e. Avenue Q). Hand to God actually takes two characters that seemingly morph into one at times. Turck has to balance not only his own dialogue, story arc, mannerisms, and more as Jason, but also has to dramatically change his voice and keep tabs on Tyrone’s blocking or movement. The times when Tyrone takes on a life of his own and interacts with the other characters is executed in such a masterful way, it is as if Turck isn’t even in control of his sock puppet. There were times, however, when Turck was caught up in his own movement or lines and forgot to move the mouth of Tyrone in a convincing way, but given those rare instances in comparison with his skills behind the puppet, it is quite forgivable.
Although a lot of weight rests on Turck’s shoulders, the rest of the 5-person cast carries their load wonderfully. The slack-jawed, sneering immaturity of Timmy is captured in the lanky energy of Valentine. Forbes gives Jessica a sweet and kid-like personality, which is quickly corrupted by Tyrone’s acidic and gross behavior, much to Jason’s dismay (there is an obvious, shared crush between the two of them). Off the bat, I thought Pastor Greg would be a somewhat throwaway character, but I was pleasantly proven wrong by Iavoco’s performance as a hilarious southern preacher trying to do the right thing. In addition to Turck’s incredible job, a grand round of applause must be given to Clark in her portrayal of Jason’s mother. With the absence of her husband, Margery struggles with idle hands and a quiet son, but does not allow the audience to pity her too much. Margery is a charming yet flawed character that is rounded out in a hilarious fashion.
Over the course of the hour and a half long show, Tyrone grows in strength and evil, manifested both in his physical form and power over Jason. The line between Jason and Tyrone starts to blur as he turns the basement of his church into a war zone. His chances with Jessica are shot to hell as Tyrone reveals the dark and embarrassing thoughts Jason has about her. When Jason tries to tell his mother that he should not continue using Tyrone, she takes this personally, thereby affecting their already strained relationship. In essence, Tyrone brings out the dark, the hurt, the twisted, the hungry, and the naturally evil inclinations humans seem to possess. With a supernatural twist, Tyrone shakes the very foundation these five characters have traversed, because how often do you interact with an otherworldly evil?
There is a pivotal conversation that Tyrone has with Jason that truly conveys the central message within Hand to God. After his church puppetry classroom is abandoned after Tyrone tears it apart before all of his friends, mother, and pastor, Jason directly asks Tyrone about the root of his actions. “Are you..the devil?” “Are you?” Tyrone responds with a sneer. With this exchange, as well as the prologue and epilogue of the show, Tyrone offers an alternative view of evil and the creation of the Devil: that humans needed a way to tell themselves that what they’ve done is right, and what others have done is wrong. But, as described by Tyrone, many turn to the very source of evil himself when justifying their behavior: “The Devil made me do it.”
According to many populations across the world, the Devil and his like take many different forms. It just so happens this one comes with felt skin and a mess of cloth locks for hair. Hand to God closes Aug. 11, and you can find tickets here.