Hand to God Holds You in an Unforgettable Grasp

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Cast of Hand to God. Photo: Unicorn Theatre

It is rare for me to leave a play speechless, but the current show at the Unicorn Theatre achieved it. If someone had seen me leaving the theater and asked me what this play is about, I wouldn’t have been able to explain it. I needed to sit with this one for a while.

With Hand to God, now playing at the Unicorn Theatre, playwright Robert Askins has written a semi-autobiographical metaphor of a period in his childhood, focusing on his struggles with religion. It was on Broadway for 8 months in 2015, and was nominated for 5 Tony Award Nominations (although, unsurprisingly, it won none of them). It’s a truly transgressive piece of work, angrily funny and breathtakingly blasphemous. It’s not for the young or faint of heart.

It’s about a woman named Margery who has gathered three teenagers, Timmy, Jessica, and her son Jason, at a church. The pastor has asked them to create a puppet show to be performed at the following week’s church service. None of them really want to be there, but they all have their reasons for showing up.

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Tyrone and Jason. Photo: Unicorn Theatre

Jason creates a puppet, who he names Tyrone. He rehearses religious songs and vaudeville routines with Tyrone while Jessica tries to befriend him. Meanwhile, Margery finds herself fending off the sexual advances of Timmy and the romantic advances of Pastor Greg.

In this swirl of awkwardness, aggression, and confusion, the puppet Tyrone begins to develop a personality of his own.  While he’s on Jason’s hand, Tyrone becomes abusive and powerful, and begins to take over Jason’s life. Eventually Jason is unable to hide his growing problem, and Tyrone makes himself known to everyone else. The others decide Jason must be possessed by the devil. Or else his hand is possessed. Or maybe the sock is a demon. Nobody knows how to cope with the situation – least of all Jason.

There are several themes weaving through each other in the play, but they surround the twin pillars of hypocrisy and repression. Churches and religious leaders are exposed as ways to take advantage of people at weak times. Human beings with natural impulses are encouraged to keep those impulses shut away, especially if they are not considered “proper behavior”.  Fear and guilt are natural weapons with which to control the shameful behaviors of people, sometimes without noticing it.

There are many plays that question the role of religion and God in the world. But Hand to God crosses the line that few dare. This play is openly anti-religious. If it isn’t obvious enough from the situations depicted on stage, there is an opening and a closing monologue which will make everything clear to you. And there are scenes in the play that will give anybody pause, regardless of their spiritual inclinations. People who are happily, devoutly faithful may want to stay home and avoid seeing what will occur in front of them.

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Timmy, Tyrone and Jason. Photo: Unicorn Theatre

The cast is small, but fierce. Heidi Van commands the stage as Margery, the recently-single mother that hides raging passions behind her upstanding appearance, and becomes too tired to hold them back anymore. Matthew J. Lindblom crackles and vibrates as Timmy, a whirling dervish of sexual energy and naiveté. Marc Liby is the Lonely Everyman in this play; he skillfully takes the pastor’s hypocrisy and makes it relatable to everyone. Mariem Diaz brings a quiet, stabilizing energy to her character of Jessica – until the second act, in which she blazes with a new type of power.

Bob Linebarger plays Jason and Tyrone. While Tyrone is technically nothing more than a sock puppet hanging on Linebarger’s arm, it is fair to treat him as a separate character. Linebarger not only portrays an awkward, scared teenager at the same time as a demonic entity, he’s also an awesome puppeteer. Sometimes it was hard to focus on the character because I was so hypnotized at how Linebarger made the puppet move.

There is nothing normal about Hand to God. It exists in a special place of theatrical arts. It is full of bravery and humor, built on a core of deep sadness mixed with rage. It is deceptively intelligent – don’t be distracted by the puppet sex, or you’ll miss out on some very important points. It explains life in a confrontational way that will be appreciated by everyone from angry teens to their world-wearier elders. It is NOT for the easily offended, or for people who think fear and repression are necessary ingredients to a happy society. But for those willing to look, Hand to God is a compelling vision.

Hand to God plays through Oct. 2 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets are available at unicorntheatre.org, at the box office, or at 816-531-7529.