Hand to God is possessed by wickedly funny spirit

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      By Robert Askins. Directed by Stephen Drover. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Wednesday, May 31. Continues until June 25

      With blasphemy, breakdowns, graphic puppet sex, and more profanity than an episode of South Park, Hand to God is a refreshingly weird turn for the Arts Club Theatre Company. Sure, the company has had a substantial amount of success staging Avenue Q over the years, but this is funnier, more vulgar, and substantially darker than its puppet forebear. But what makes this production truly great is a phenomenal cast.

      Written by Robert Askins, Hand to God centres on a church in a small Texan town where Margery (Jennifer Lines), a recent widow, runs a Christian puppet program that includes her 16-year-old son, Jason (Oliver Castillo), Jessica (Julie Leung), and Timothy (Mike Gill), a foul-mouthed bad boy with a crush on Margery. Pastor Greg (Shekhar Paleja) also has feelings for Margery, but she’s barely keeping it together, and is so busy trying not to fall apart that she barely notices that Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, has apparently come to life and Jason is possibly possessed by the devil. Tyrone is angry, sexist, misogynistic, and antagonistic. Jason is gentle, passive, and trying to be the son his mother wants, but is grappling with Tyrone’s increasingly violent demands.

      It’s worth noting that Askins borrows from his own life for the basics: he, too, grew up in a small Texan town, his mother ran the church’s puppet program, and his father died when he was just 16. Hand to God boasts some incredible lines and there are plenty of hilarious scripted moments, but Askins’s skewering of the hypocrisies of religion and humanity doesn’t go deep enough. Hand to God, while fascinating on many levels, and very funny, feels like a collection of great jokes and shocking moments that are supposed to tell us something more, about ourselves and the world, but never quite delivers.

      Striking the right tone with black comedy like this is particularly difficult, but director Stephen Drover has a deft touch for keeping the company buzzing, every scene straddling the line perfectly between frenzied and chaotic. Lines is mesmerizing, nailing Margery’s increasingly wild-eyed desperation. She’s also a great physical comedian, as is Castillo, whose performance should make him a star. He switches brilliantly between Jason and Tyrone, making the puppet feel like a fully realized character rather than just a piece of grey felt with wonky eyes and deranged levels of toxic masculinity. He and Leung deserve a special Jessie next year for the puppet sex scene alone.

      The play itself isn’t perfect, but Hand to God is one of those rare instances when the casting is so impressive and the direction is so damn good, the production doesn’t just elevate its source material, it transcends it.