Lust, grief, denial and repression (not to mention demonic possession) in the bible-belt town of Cypress, Texas. Oh, yes. Don’t forget the puppets. These are all elements of the Guild Theatre’s upcoming production of Hand to God, a dark comedy by Robert Askins, who actually grew up in the Houston-area community in which he set his multiple Tony Award-nominated 2011 play.
The Guild’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, first heard of the show last year when the Arts Club Theatre mounted it in Vancouver. Because of his “thing” for puppets (“particularly the dark puppets”), he decided to order a copy.
“I read it, and I was absolutely laughing out loud all the way through. It’s super-edgy, and it just rides that line between inappropriate and … well, offensive,” Fidler said.
The play’s lead characters are Margery, a recently-widowed woman in her 40s, and her shy teenaged son, Jason.
“They’re both grieving the loss of their husband and father. So they’re both on the journey, and they both sort of reach their breaking point in the course of the play.”
When Jason discovers an affinity for puppets, the local pastor encourages Margery to start an after-school puppet group for the church’s teenagers, with the intention that they will perform for members of the congregation.
It doesn’t take long for things to start going sideways, both for Margery (played by newcomer Odile Nelson) and her son (Loughran Thorson-Looysen).
Initially, Jason is using his puppet, Tyrone, as a “pathway way to channel his unfulfilled emotions,” including those surrounding his relationship with his mother, and his grief over his father’s sudden death.
Meanwhile, as Margery seeks her own form of solace, she “totally loses it and does some inappropriate things” with one of the other characters. Along the way, she also has to cope with confusing romantic overtures from Pastor Greg (James Cleary).
Apart from Jason, the puppet group includes Jessica (played by Brooke Fusick), the down to earth girl-next-door type, who is “super-feisty and fiery, and doesn’t put up with anything.
“There are characters in the play who are attempting to manipulate her, and she doesn’t stand for any of it. She definitely knows who she is, whereas Jason is struggling to find himself,” Fidler said.
The third member of the group is the local bad boy, Timothy (Adrian Woodhouse), a troubled teen with an agenda of his own, whom Fidler describes as hard to like.
“The characters are very much rooted in reality, and some of them are quite foul-mouthed, particularly Timothy. But he’s a real person. That’s what I really like about the writing. No one is spared, but they’re real people.”
The play’s other main character is Jason’s hand-puppet, Tyrone, who actually opens the play with a hilarious, but expletive-laced, prologue before proceeding to dominate the action in many respects.
It is through Tyrone’s agency that Jason summons the courage to broach his feelings for Jessica, if only indirectly, and under the influence of the trouble-making Timothy.
“There’s a risqué scene between his puppet and Jessica’s that I think is going to be worth the price of admission. I don’t want to give too much away, but I just hope we don’t get shut down,” Fidler laughed.
As the play unfolds, Tyrone becomes more independent and more malicious. Is Jason still manipulating the puppet, or is the puppet manipulating Jason? Is it possible that one (or possibly both) of them is possessed by the Devil?
While the play addresses issues of faith, human desire, and sexual appropriateness in a way some people might find objectionable, Fidler believes the playwright is making an earnest attempt to explore these questions from many different angles.
“I think that is one part of the conversation with evangelical Christians, with situations such as [Alabama Senate candidate] Roy Moore, that is pertinent right now.”
While Hand to God is set in a specific locale, Fidler believes the action could easily take place elsewhere.
“It’s many places in America, and it’s many places in Canada that are still very much rooted in conservative Christian values,” he said.
Levels of repression and denial run through the journeys of all the characters except Timothy, but the heart of the play is grief and faith, “and sometimes we need a Christ-like figure so that we don’t kill each other,” Fidler said.
Still, as Tyrone suggests in his prologue, perhaps we’re all animals, “who just want to be eating and [fornicating],” the director added.
For the three teenaged roles, Fidler followed Askins’ stage directions by casting actors older than the 15 to 17-year-olds they play.
“It’s kind of a comfort thing. It goes too inappropriate if you have teenagers there. It’s not just language, but content-wise it’s pretty edgy.”
Thorsen-Looysen, Fusick and Woodhouse are all in their early 20s, and alumni of the Music, Art & Drama (MAD) program at Wood Street School. They also worked together backstage during last month’s Guild production of Good People.
Hand to God runs Thursday to Saturday, from January 25 to February 10 at the Guild Theatre on 14th Avenue in Porter Creek. Curtain time is 8 p.m.